The first group of children began arriving for class at about 8 a.m. Then around lunchtime, once the first school session had concluded, it was the next group’s turn.
This is how thousands of children attended New York City public schools during the 1950s and 1960s, when local officials grappled with overcrowding in the nation’s largest school system as the city’s population boomed. It was tried again among a handful of high schools as recently as the mid-1990s.
“They were faced with a quandary,” said Stanley Litow, a former deputy chancellor of New York City Public Schools who now teaches at Columbia and Duke universities. “They could increase class size to 45-50 students per class, or they could try and identify additional new space. They came up with a solution: double sessions.”
Shortening the school session, according to Litow, allowed class sizes to be kept at about 25 students per class, as well as to preserve the 5-day school week. Litow himself attended P.S. 61, a Lower East Side elementary school that had double sessions in place at the time.
Now, it turns out that as top city officials spent the summer brainstorming the safest and most feasible way to reopen city schools, which shut down in mid-March because of the pandemic, the concept of double sessions was back on the table more than five decades since being first introduced. Except this time, the goal was radically different: Could reducing the number of students with double sessions, allow for better ventilation and more space to socially distance?
The idea was ultimately rejected by the city’s schools reopening task force, a group of about 40 local officials, which included Mayor Bill de Blasio, Richard Carranza, the city schools chancellor, along with former school officials like Litow, as well as members of the teachers and principals’ unions.
"I wish that it would have been a more serious discussion of an option," said Litow, who first pitched the return of double sessions to the city’s schools reopening task force in late June.
According to Litow, his presentation was not followed by a discussion and it is not clear if the mayor and schools chancellor privately talked about double sessions.
Some of the nation’s largest school districts also considered double sessions as a possible solution for schools’ reopening, said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers who also served in the state’s school reopening task force. In the end, cleaning costs and logistical challenges deterred city and school officials across the U.S. from further considering the option.
“Initially, when people started thinking about what you would need to physically distance and how you would need to reduce capacity, double sessions became intuitive but most of the big districts rejected it because of logistics and cost issues,” Weingarten told Gothamist.
Litow's account provides a glimpse into the tightly held conversations that took place as the city prepared to become the only major school district in the country to offer some in-person instruction this fall. De Blasio has repeatedly stressed the importance of in-person learning for the more than 1 million public school students, but he has faced criticism from teachers and parents for failing to adequately prepare schools for an unprecedented health threat. After pressure from teachers, the mayor last week agreed to delay the reopening on schools to September 21st.
Like outdoor learning, Litow's plan had historical precedent but one that was far more recent in the memories of educators. New York City was not the only school district that implemented double sessions in the 1950s. Public schools in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston also rolled out double shifts in an effort to provide enough class seats.
In New York City, double sessions were linked to the city’s racist housing and education policies.
“Most white children were in schools with enough seats,” said Ansley Erickson, a history and education policy professor at Columbia University. “For Blacks and Puerto Rican New Yorkers, double sessions were an example of the many kinds of inequality they were experiencing in New York city schools.”
Today, the vast majority of students—70%—in the public school system are Black and Latino. So far both groups, who have been disproportionately sickened and killed by the virus, have indicated more concern about in-person learning than white families in the public school system. As of last week, nearly 40% of all public school parents had chosen to keep their children at home. Among those requests, 21% and 38% came from Black and Latino parents respectively while 11% were from white parents. Meanwhile, Asian Americans have been the most adverse to in-school learning, representing more than a quarter of those choosing remote-only classes.
“It’s good for the city to be considering lots of options in this challenging time,” Erickson said. “I just hope that they will be focusing on equity in making these choices.”
The double session plan would have helped schools with the least amount of space as well as those with ventilation issues. But in a crucial benefit to all schools, the incorporation of double shifts could also enable schools to allow children to attend school more frequently. Under the hybrid model, New York City public schools will conduct in-person instruction only a few days a week. In some schools, because of limited classroom and building space, that can mean as few as one day of classroom learning a week.
To address the increased flow of students into schools, Litow proposed the hiring of additional cleaning staff to wipe down the classrooms in between sessions.
In the end, he said some members of the task force considered it too difficult to clean the classrooms in between sessions, while others thought it would be too hard to negotiate this new schedule with the teachers and staff.
But Litow disagreed, and supported the option even if double sessions would be put in place for some schools only.
Dick Riley, the spokesperson with the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers union, said the union raised double sessions as a possibility during its talks with the city’s Department of Education but that in the end, “the idea was rejected because the DOE said it did not have the capacity to deep clean the buildings twice a day.”
A spokesperson for the mayor's office referred questions about double sessions to the Department of Education.
Miranda Barbot, the DOE's press secretary, confirmed the alternative of double sessions was brought up and discussed during meetings and cited concerns over cleaning between sessions as the reason the model was not pursued.
Litow said he would have liked at least a formal discussion on double sessions in which he could have addressed the task force's concerns.
"A solution may not be perfect, but the perfect should not be the enemy of the good," he argued.