Facing the Fall

How NYC public schools and the city’s colleges and universities are planning to keep students and teachers safe

01 Aug 2020 | 03:25

The month before a new school year begins is traditionally full of familiar rituals: school supply shopping, comparing class schedules with friends, and finishing up that pesky summer reading put off in favor of more time in the sun. There’s a general sense of anticipation, of excitement, of possibility that comes in August.

But this year is unlike any other in recent memory. Now, parents, teachers and students await September with anxiety and uncertainty at the prospect of returning to the classroom amid a pandemic that just months ago ravaged New York City.

“This year it’s filled with a whole different reality,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at his press conference Friday morning after evoking many of those emotions that typically come with going back to school.

The city’s Department of Education and New York City colleges are adjusting to this different reality with a new mode of instruction: a hybrid of time in the classroom and remote sessions, now known as blended learning. It’s an attempt to balance a student’s social and academic needs with their health and safety, as well as the health and safety of teachers and faculty members.

Some institutions have been more successful in communicating the expectations and protocols in place for the fall, while others have left students and teachers with unresolved questions. And still, regardless of how thorough the plans drawn up in the past few months are, it’s clear that educating students amid a public health crisis as severe as the coronavirus pandemic is unchartered territory for all stakeholders.

Earlier this month, the mayor’s office announced that a partial reopening would include classroom attendance limited to one to three days per week, smaller class sizes, staggered schedules and the option to remain a full-time remote learner. Additionally, the city will give school staff free and priority access to COVID-19 testing, install hand washing and hand sanitizer stations, provide face coverings for each student and staff member for free, and conduct a deep cleaning of school buildings each day.

On Friday, the mayor — accompanied by DOE Chancellor Richard Carranza and Ted Long, who leads the city’s Test and Trace program — offered a more specific plan on how schools would handle confirmed infections, and also made schools openings contingent upon the city’s infection rate. In order for schools to reopen and remain open, de Blasio said he city’s infection rate would need to be below 3 percent, which is a stricter standard than the state’s 5 percent standard. For weeks, the city has maintained an infection rate below the 3 percent threshold, with the rate currently held at 1 percent.

Officials also stressed that students would have minimal contact with students and teachers outside of their classroom, which they said would help keep the virus contained if someone were to test positive. The city’s plan outlines six scenarios involving confirmed cases and how officials would respond to each scenario. For example, if a single student tested positive for the virus, that student’s classroom would close for 14 days and students and staff with close-contact would quarantine. If two cases are confirmed in different classrooms, the school would shut down and move to remote learning.

The mayor raised the possibility of repeated school openings and closings in the fall.

“We need to prepare for an experience that is not linear,” said de Blasio.

Officials seemed confident in their approach to the reopening, but teachers’ unions have not yet bought into the plan. On Twitter, a cohort of United Teachers Federation questioned why only a single classroom would close following a confirmed infection and not the entire school, as had been the protocol when the pandemic hit the city in March.

“This ‘plan’ is confusing and absolutely frightening,” the group wrote in a tweet.

Quandaries on Campus

Over the summer, the city’s colleges and universities have been working through the same logistical quandaries as the DOE on how to educate students amid a pandemic, with the additional obstacle of needing to house students in tight quarters on campus. Each has outlined social distancing and mask policies that have now become commonplace, and have also adopted blended learning as the mode for education.

During a legislative session Tuesday, City University of New York Chancellor Felix Rodriguez said in some ways colleges and universities in New York are still in a stage of wait-and-see while the state has yet to make an official decision regarding school reopenings.

“Ultimately, all decisions on fall classes are pending final guidelines from the governor’s office,” said Rodriguez. “CUNY is working to offer its academic courses and programs for as many of its academic courses and support services as is reasonably practicable in an online modality and remote format.”

CUNY has been working to help facilitate remote learning by purchasing 33,000 laptops and iPads for students to take courses online, the chancellor said.

“Since the majority of CUNY students come from backgrounds of limited financial means, it became obvious that many of our students would not be able to successfully complete the spring semester without having a dedicated device they can use for academic work,” said Rodriguez.

At other institutions, there’s a sense for students and faculty that some institutions have lacked transparency and clarity during this process.

At Columbia University, officials who initially gave instructors the option to teach exclusively online have started to back away from that position.

In an email, Amy Hungerford, Columbia’s executive vice president of arts and sciences, asked that instructors “mount a more robust offering of in-person or hybrid courses to meet important student needs.”

She said the “vast majority” of faculty and instructors chose to teach exclusively online, and said the consideration for the needs of students needed to be expanded upon.

Evan Jewell, who is a history professor at Rutgers, said a friend forwarded him the email, which Jewell then posted on Twitter along with very critical commentary of Columbia.

“Today faculty and grad instructors @Columbia received an email trying to shame them into teaching in person. As a friend who sent it to me summed it up, ‘stop being so selfish and come die in the classroom,’ Jewell said in a tweet.

“A Huge Headache”

Annie Abramczyk, a junior at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, said her university’s communication over the summer about the fall summer was purposely vague. It wasn’t until July 30 when the university sent an email detailing procedures for student arrival, COVID-19 testing, and quarantining that she felt as though she’d been given clear and concise information about what to expect in the fall.

“As far as language goes, as far as instruction goes, it has not been very helpful,” said Abramczyk.

NYU, too, is attempting to offer blending learning, but Abramczyk said educators haven’t been exact in describing what that will look like in practice, and her faculty advisor has not been as communicative as she’d expect under these circumstances. As a Tisch student, Abramczyk said she typically has studio classes for several hours each day, and while she thought her professors adapted well to remote learning, it’s not conducive to her own style of learning. So she plans to defer the semester, though it’s still not clear if the university will accept that request.

“The thing that scares me though, is it’s July 30th, and I submitted my leave of absence request 10 and a half days ago,” she said, noting that fall tuition is due Aug. 4. “And I find it pretty bad that they have not given me any indication that this leave of absence request has been approved, processed or that it’s rejected — nothing. It’s honestly been a huge headache.”

“We need to prepare for an experience that is not linear.” Mayor Bill de Blasio