Dozens Of NYC Public School Buildings May Not Be Able To Fit Their Students At 3 Feet Apart This Fall

With just over a month until the new academic year kicks off, some New York City public school principals said they still don’t know how to fit all their students back into buildings.

Administrators said they’re grappling with federal social distancing guidelines, trying to figure out how to make them work, and gauge whether they’ll be enforced.

“Honestly, I’ve talked to a lot of my colleagues about this and it seems like everyone is just guessing,” said one middle school principal in Brooklyn, who declined to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

The guidance that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last month recommends universal masking and three feet of social distancing, but it emphasized that the top priority is getting kids back into classrooms. The city’s education department said it’s adopting that guidance, and plans to follow the federal recommendation of three feet of social distancing “where possible.” New York state announced today that it would defer to local school districts on reopening plans.

But principals have been sounding the alarm about space issues for months.

In a conference call with administrators in May, education department officials said they had identified 76 severely overcrowded schools, which they have classified as “Tier 1,” that would have the most trouble accommodating all students at three feet apart. Some of those schools have enrollments that are typically hundreds of students more than their official capacity.

On the call, officials said another 116 schools would have difficulty, but could probably make it work.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of the advocacy group Class Size Matters, said she obtained a leaked list of the Tier 1 schools, and is calling on the city to move quickly to expand capacity.

The education department would not confirm or deny the veracity of the list, which includes more than three dozen high schools, as well as a smattering of elementary and middle schools across the city.

High schools in Brooklyn and Queens are among the most crowded in the list, ranging from 100 to more than 300 students above capacity. According to the list, the top 10 most crowded schools based on 2019-2020 enrollment data are: PS 35 in Brooklyn, Francis Lewis High School, Fort Hamilton High School, The Matilda Avenue High School, Academy of Finance and Enterprise, Forest Hills High School, Medgar Evers College Preparatory High School, James Madison High School, International High School, Midwood High School, and Academy of American Studies.

Haimson said the city should use federal and state funds to hire more teachers, purchase parochial schools that have closed, and move preschool classes into community based organizations and pre-k centers.

Mayor de Blasio has promised a full return to school on September 13th, without a remote option.

Education department officials affirmed that all schools will be able to provide full-time, in-person instruction. They said the agency has already taken a proactive approach, dispatching teams to tour and measure spaces and advise administrators on solutions. As examples, officials said one school is switching to grab-and-go meals to free up the cafeteria for potential use as classroom space. Another is using outdoor space and removing extraneous furniture.

“We look forward to having all of our students back in buildings this fall,” said education department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer. “All our schools will safely serve every student in accordance with current CDC guidance.”

In interviews, some principals in New York City said they have been asked to scout additional space outside of their buildings, while others are considering staggered schedules.

Jodie Cohen, principal of James Madison High School in Brooklyn, said she has been working closely with the education department’s space management office, which has been “really supportive.” She said the school, with an enrollment of 3,900 students, despite a capacity closer to 2,300, already uses a staggered schedule with students phasing in over the course of the morning. “Traditionally, we’ve had many more students than we could fit in one setting,” she said. “Programming is a puzzle to begin with.” But she said she’s confident the school will be able to welcome back all students.

Other administrators said they’re still waiting for clarity from officials at Tweed — the education department’s headquarters.

“We did not know if it’s three feet period or three feet ‘where possible,’” said one Brooklyn elementary school principal, who declined to give her name because she was not authorized to speak. “I’m hearing that from you.”

She also said she had not heard from — or even heard of — the department’s space planning team. Moreover, the issue is not just about physical capacity; schools will have to hire more teachers if there are fewer students per class.

Additionally, multiple principals said they’re confused about how to plan for lunch. Last year, students were required to be six feet apart when eating. The federal guidance now says to maximize social distancing during meals, but not if it’s an obstacle to in-person learning.

Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said he believes the number of schools that cannot accommodate students under the current social distancing recommendation is actually much higher than the education department admits.

“Everyone knows there are many more schools than just the ones on their list,” he said.

Cannizzaro said, typically, administrators would be much farther along in drawing up class assignments and schedules at this point in the summer, but the confusion over the three feet guidance is making it difficult to plan.

In a conference call with members on Tuesday, United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew said the education department has informed the union that only about 50 schools will be unable to accommodate students at three feet of social distancing. “We’re having a hard time believing this,” he said.

“It is going to be nearly impossible for a number of schools to comply” at three feet apart, said Council member Mark Treyger, who chairs the council’s education committee.

With reporting by Sophia Chang.

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