How should New York reopen schools?

Experts say more federal funding will be needed to implement any plans to open schools safely.

How should New York approach reopening schools?

How should New York approach reopening schools? Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

How to handle schools remains one of the thorniest decisions New York faces in reopening after the peak of the state’s COVID-19 outbreak. Many students, particularly younger ones who can’t easily adapt to remote learning, benefit educationally from in-person classes. And parents trying to balance work and caring for their kids could benefit as well. 

But reopening also presents health risks for students, teachers and staff – and the family members they live with. There’s promising research indicating the spread of the coronavirus may be more limited among children – but is that enough to ease concerns among older educators and staff, or those with other health conditions? As many as one in five teachers in New York City may choose to work from home, according to city Education Department officials. 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s plans on Wednesday to limit in-person attendance to one to three days a week, depending on each school building’s capacity and student population. This would incorporate precautions including mandatory mask-wearing, access to hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies and upgraded ventilation systems. 

Questions still remain on what coronavirus testing policies may be in place and how child care will be handled for employees. And plans are still likely to shift given that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is holding off on approving anything until the first week of August, leaving plenty of room for speculation on what the fall holds for parents, kids and teachers. Other school systems throughout the state are waiting for guidance from the state to develop plans. 

City & State reached out to several experts to outline what New York should do when it comes to reopening schools: Ronald Marino, director of the Center for School Health at Mt. Sinai South Nassau and a pediatrician; Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers; and Aaron Pallas, chair of the department of education policy and social analysis at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Should schools in New York state reopen, and, if so, what precautions should be taken?

Ron Marino: Yes, schools should reopen. Children need the social as well as educational experience and both goals are best served by human interactions. We must recognize that the COVID pandemic places numerous additional considerations into planning for reopening and that the 2020/21 school year will not look like previous ones. Certainly, careful attention must be given to minimizing risk of infection among students, school personnel and family contacts. This means that classrooms will need to be reconfigured, hand washing or sanitizing stations must be readily available, and face coverings must be worn when appropriate. Careful thought must be given to transportation, meals and athletics. Cleaning policies must be revisited. Staff and students must be made aware of the importance of following all recommendations that are made. The school nurse and school medical director should be integral to planning and communication with administration, employees, students and their families.

Aaron Pallas: Whether and how schools in the state should reopen for face-to-face instruction varies tremendously by region and school district. We've seen variability across regions in the pacing of the four phases of reopening the state, and the school plans should track that. That means that most schools will reopen, at least part of the time. But things are moving at the speed of light. On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence announced that there will soon be new guidance from the CDC on school reopenings, as the current guidance is too "tough and expensive." The politicization of health guidance is alarming.

Michael Mulgrew: Schools can reopen, but only when they are safe for students, their families, and the staff.

If you think schools shouldn't reopen, should only reopen partially, or if they later need to be closed again, how can schools ensure that students continue to learn – especially younger students, those from disadvantaged communities and students with special needs?

Mulgrew: The current proposed reopening plans for New York City public schools – based on state and CDC recommendations – call for no more than 9-12 people in the average classroom, meaning that most schools will have to create cohorts of students who alternate between in-class and remote learning. Everyone in school will be masked, and there will also have to be extensive cleaning, testing, and contact-tracing protocols.

All of the scheduling plans are complicated to implement and present logistical challenges for working parents, but we believe a blended learning model is the best option under the circumstances. The (New York City) Department of Education is working with principals to develop more detailed plans, particularly the best instructional strategies for the most vulnerable students.

Pallas: It's hard to isolate schools from families and the economy, as reopening affects children and working parents, and the ability of parents at all points of the socioeconomic spectrum to work drives the economy. It's especially important to have younger students in schools as much as possible, both for their academic, social and emotional well-being, and to enable their parents to work, remotely or otherwise. Older children require less supervision. Students with special needs benefit from the physical presence of teachers who are trained to work with them, so having them in schools is especially important.

Marino: This year will require fluid decision making and the ability to adapt to a variety of possible situations. Partial closures, split schedules, alternate-day attendance are all possibilities that will stress students, their caregivers and faculty. However we all must be prepared to deal with decisions based on the best public health recommendations. Learning will continue on many fronts. Certainly, distant learning has been rapidly implemented by our dedicated teachers on short notice this year. We are well aware that that remote learning has taken many forms, depending on the ability of the districts, the schools, the teachers, and school and student resources; this has ranged from printed worksheets sent home to be reviewed by parents, to six hours a day “in person” classes with teachers. Significant challenges existed, especially for those from under-resourced communities and for children with special needs. Schools should be prepared to assess individual student and family needs, and implement plans that fully support students’ learning and parents at every level. 

What more can local and state government do to support schools, parents, students and teachers going into the fall?

Pallas: Local and state governments are already struggling to make up for the revenue losses incurred due to the pandemic, and have had to slash school budgets. And there are new costs associated with reopening schools, which may need renovations and additional staffing to serve even a fraction of their students on-site each day. Only the federal government can step in and restore this funding. Governments should lobby their members of Congress to pass legislation to fill in the budget gaps. Since many schools and districts will be operating on a "blended" model, with some instruction face-to-face and some remote, I wish we had more time to think about curriculum and remote tools to support student learning. But the logistics of preparing schools to safely serve students – and the adult educators who work with them – this fall will take all of the time available.

Mulgrew: The plans recently announced are just the first step. There is much more work to do to fill in the details. But any reopening scenario is going to require additional spending for staff and supplies. It is critical that Congress enacts the HEROES Act, which would bring millions of federal dollars to help the schools – and other public services – meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Marino: An important role of government is to provide clear consistent guidance on policy that can be implemented by ALL schools. Each district or system should not be making their own decisions on attendance, masks, how to handle illness and a myriad of other questions. The departments of Education and Health need to give specific clear guidance on what schools need to do to safely conduct their business. Government can also provide access to personal protective equipment so schools do not have to compete for these products. Additionally, attention to policies on testing, attendance (and) periodicity of health exams may need to be revisited in the future.

If schools are only a few days a week and parents need to stay home with them the rest of the time, what does that mean for reopening the economy?

Mulgrew: While the (New York City) Department of Education works out the many details of school reopening, the city needs to create an emergency plan to expand child care for working parents, based on the model of the Regional Enrichment Centers the city has provided this spring and summer for the children of essential workers.

Pallas: A lot depends on what it means to reopen the economy. I think we should prioritize schools and children, even if that means slowing down some of the things that we have missed during the shutdown. New York has been pretty successful in reducing the incidence of new COVID-19 cases, precisely because New Yorkers were vigilant and complied with basic safety guidelines. Other states pushed too quickly to reopen, and are paying the price. We cannot afford a virulent second wave of cases. Here too, we should lobby the federal government for more economic supports for working parents, and design creative strategies for childcare that don't require parents to stay home. The pandemic has exposed so many weaknesses in how we've organized childcare and family life.