Social Distancing Requirements Will Be Pivotal In NYC Schools Reopening Next Fall

Mayor Bill de Blasio has said repeatedly that his goal is to get all students back into school buildings next fall. But some educators worry there won’t be enough physical space or staff to welcome back all their students if officials stick with current social distancing requirements. 

In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance for schools, saying students should be at least three feet apart in classrooms, and six feet apart when eating. The guidance also calls for six feet apart for older students in communities where transmission is high. 

The mayor adopted the recommendations for New York City’s schools, requiring three feet apart for elementary age students and six feet apart for middle and high school students. All students must also be six feet apart from adults and from each other when eating. The move allowed more children to opt-in for in-person learning, and has enabled five days of in-person instruction in many schools. 

But more than 60 percent of students continue to be remote, allowing for more space in typically crowded classrooms, but that almost certainly won’t be the case next year. 

One Brooklyn elementary school principal said if students are still required to sit three feet apart she would need to create 10 more classes with 10 more teachers. She could use art and music rooms as regular classrooms, but even then there wouldn’t be enough space for everyone. 

A Bronx middle school principal said, to accommodate his students at three feet apart, he would need three more classes and teachers. At six feet apart, he would need as many as 16 new classes and teachers. 

“While we understand that CDC guidance can change rapidly and believe that most schools will be able to properly maintain three feet of social distance even if most students return to buildings next year, there are certainly schools that will have challenges due to space constraints, and the time to plan is now,” said Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. 

This is typically the time of year that Administrators begin hiring for vacant positions, but they can’t do that until they have a sense of how big classes will be and how many teachers they will need. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Education said information on social distancing is coming, but did not say when. “We’re planning for a full return in the fall, putting health and safety first,” the spokesperson said. “We will have more to share on distancing in the lead-up to next school year and will continue to be guided by the latest health guidance along the way.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could change its guidance on social distancing in schools, as it did last week for masks, but it’s just guidance, and the state or the city could adopt their own rules. Social distancing requirements could be influenced by vaccination rates and transmission rates in a community come September.

In terms of space, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten wrote in The Atlantic last week that her union is committed to all schools reopening fully in the fall—with safety measures in place, including social distancing. She recommended school district leaders start searching for additional space now. 

Leonie Haimson, director of the advocacy group Class Size Matters, said the city could free up additional space by moving pre-K programs out of school buildings and into community based organizations or pre-K centers. She said the city could also use shuttered Catholic schools to create more capacity. “If you’re going to do social distancing, you need space,” she said. 

Haimson, who has spent decades fighting for smaller classes, said reducing the number of students per class is all the more crucial now, both because of safety and the need to support students academically and psychologically following the health crisis and a year and a half of remote learning. She said the city also has the resources to reduce class sizes: the state finally increased funding for schools according to a longstanding court mandate and the city has federal stimulus money to invest. 

“It’s just no brainer,” she said. “It really is a golden opportunity to finally provide kids with the learning conditions they have needed and deserved for a generation,” she said. 

In Albany, State Senator Robert Jackson and Assembly Member Joann Simon have proposed legislation requiring New York City to create a plan to reduce class sizes, starting this fall. 

Without additional capacity, schools may need students to opt for remote-only instruction. But it’s not clear yet how much remote learning will be allowed, or what it will look like. Mayor de Blasio has said he expects a remote learning option to be available, although officials have become increasingly vague on the subject. 

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said Monday that the state  will not have a remote option

The challenge for NYC principals to staff schools this fall could be significant.  While teachers have reported tremendous burnout from the pandemic, officials said retirements are actually down this year compared to last. But that could change. 

The state passed legislation this spring allowing certain public employees, including teachers and administrators, to retire earlier this year—although the education department and the unions are still working out who qualifies. Principals said they’re also waiting for details on what kind of medical accommodations will be granted to teachers next year, another factor they say is crucial for planning.