As Mayor Bill de Blasio stressed on Friday that a decision to close public schools due to high COVID-19 rates could happen as early this weekend, principals across the city have already been advised to prepare transitioning all students and staffers to 100% remote learning.
“People should get ready,” de Blasio said on the Brian Lehrer Show Friday morning. “Parents should have a plan for the rest of the month of November […] have an alternative plan beginning as early as Monday.”
And in an appearance on MSNBC, the mayor added, "Hopefully, [the shutdown is] only a matter of weeks."
De Blasio said that the seven-day rolling average of positive COVID-19 tests was 2.83%, edging to the 3% rate trigger to close public schools. Such a move will impact families of some 280,000 children who are currently enrolled in-person learning, forcing them to make contingency plans with no timeframe on when they’ll reopen.
Listen to Brian Lehrer discuss the potential school shutdown with Mayor Bill de Blasio:
The United Federation of Teachers union is taking de Blasio's warning seriously, sending an email to member staffers recommending they "have all the equipment and supplies you need to work from home in case we are remote on Monday."
De Blasio's warning came hours after Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza sent an open letter to principals Thursday night, advising them to be prepared for full remote learning. In a set of recommendations he outlined to principals, Carranza said teachers must adapt their curriculum for remote learning, ensure every LTE-enabled iPad is distributed to students, and keep an updated contact list of students and staffers. Remote learning attendance will also be taken.
The feeling of readiness varied across the system.
Kyle Brillante, principal at Highbridge Green School in the Bronx, didn’t wait for such a letter to be sent to him. Already anticipating a school shutdown, Brillante told Gothamist/WNYC that his school has been preparing to turn on a dime in case of a shutdown since reopening in September.
Currently, 40% of his schools' students attend school in person, with 80 to 90 kids attending school every day. All students have devices, and they will be able to stay with their same cohorts and teachers in a shutdown so that there’s consistency and continuity of learning, he said. But, despite de Blasio’s assertions that a decision could come this weekend, Brillante hopes a full closure doesn’t happen.
“As a principal, I want schools to be open because I know that there are many students and families who benefit from in-person learning as long as it’s safe for everyone involved,” he said. “Personally, […] I don’t really want to go back to working from home, and I don’t really want that for our kids and our families.”
Joanna Cohen, an assistant principal at P.S. 169 in Sunset Park, also wants to keep the school doors open.
“The 3% metric for closing schools seems contrary to public health guidance, and I am concerned for our students, many of whom are English Language Learners and are really benefiting from attending school in person,” Cohen explained. “This is something I've wanted from the time we started planning for in-person instruction: The DOE should focus on meeting the needs of our most vulnerable students, in person. This would be the most equitable solution. Education is an essential service, and we must be able to figure out a way to make this work.”
Cohen feels her students are under-prepared since the DOE has not delivered 14 LTE-enabled iPads for her students to continue learning, a move that puts her at the mercy of the DOE.
“They are doing their best to join class meetings on their parents' cell phones, but as I'm sure you can imagine, this is inadequate,” Cohen said of her students in an email to Gothamist/WNYC.
The school has since launched a fundraiser for WiFi hotspots for students who have unreliable internet service.
Last month, education officials testified that some 77,000 devices were ordered. It’s unclear how many have been delivered, though in his letter on Thursday, Carranza said it can take four to six weeks to have them delivered.
Anna Waters, an assistant principal at Highbridge Green in the Bronx, said she was confused about the 3% trigger that would close schools.
“It doesn’t seem clear to me that there’s a huge amount of science behind that particular threshold,” she said. “If the data and the science says that at 3% […] there’s going to be a quantifiable impact on community spread and we’re going to be setting ourselves up for a longer pandemic and longer pandemic response, then yes we should close.”
But Waters said she would have chosen a different model, similar to those promoted by Councilmember Mark Treyger and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, that would have prioritized students with “greater learning needs.”
“I would have done things differently from the beginning,” Waters said. “I think that kids with [Individualized Education Programs] and greater learning needs should have been able to come in five days a week since the beginning and we should have been able to prioritize our kids from the beginning in that way. And I would have wanted to continue prioritizing the neediest kids.”