Last Thursday, Councilman Mark Treyger (D-Brooklyn), chairman of the Education Committee, posted an email that a New York City principals union sent out to its members telling them that the Department of Education recognizes that social distancing may not be possible in some schools.
The email reflects a reality that principals are struggling to balance a full school system reopening with the advice of federal social distancing guidelines. In boroughs like Queens, which contain some of the city’s most overcrowded schools, the challenge remains especially acute.
With only five weeks until students return to classrooms, what social distancing looks like from school to school remains one of several lingering questions in terms of the health and safety protocols of the city’s full return to school buildings.
The CDC guidelines for opening K-12 schools recommend maintaining at least 3 feet of distance between students as well as staff, but it stops short of making it a requirement, emphasizing that a safe return to in-person learning, like the one that the city DOE is embarking on for this fall, is a priority.
“When it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least 3 feet, such as when schools cannot fully reopen while maintaining these distances, it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as screening testing,” the guidance reads.
While Treyger suggested that the principals union memo to be an indication that they are planning to “detach” from CDC guidance, the DOE would disagree. The DOE has said that it plans to follow the 3-foot guidance where possible, but in full accordance with the latest CDC advice.
“We look forward to having all of our students back in buildings this fall. All our schools will safely serve every student in accordance with current CDC guidance,” said DOE spokesperson Nathaniel Stuyer.
Whether or not the school system’s plan fits the ambiguous guidance, principals have reportedly been raising the issue of social distancing as a persistent challenge since June.
The DOE has maintained that it continues to develop unique plans individually tailored to each school’s unique space requirement to allow the safe accommodation of all students. Those workarounds involve making cafeteria and meal service flexible in order to make the space available at various points during the day or utilizing outdoor space, similar to what many schools had to do to prepare for last fall’s reopening.
Reporting from June pegged the number of schools classified as Tier 1, or those in the most dire need of additional space, at 76. Last week class size advocate Leonie Haimson released a confidentially obtained list of the city’s Tier 1 schools that places 32 of them in Queens, more than any other borough.
A DOE spokesperson said that the data has not been verified by the agency but added that it seemed to be from two months ago.
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, heard in a recording of the UFT delegate assembly on Aug. 3, said the last he had heard from the DOE’s report was that it had been able to maintain 3 feet of social distancing for all but 50 schools citywide. Mulgrew added that he was skeptical of that figure.
For its part the DOE has put together a “space planning team,” a group designated with the task of ensuring each school in the city has enough space to fully reopen in September. The team has been meeting with school leaders since May, the department said, and is in the process of doing walk-throughs with principals to provide suggestions as schools ready their distancing plans.