Next week, nearly 190,000 students will grab their backpacks once again and head back to public schools for round two of reopening. Mayor Bill de Blasio chose to shutter all 1,600 public school buildings the moment the city’s seven-day rolling positivity testing average rate hit 3% on November 16th, sending children into 100% remote learning and thousands of weary parents into a tailspin as they rearranged their schedules.

Now, de Blasio has announced that once schools reopen on December 7th, a full system-wide shutdown will not happen again (with some caveats). Below, we break down just what lies ahead for the young students getting facetime with their peers and teachers once again.

So schools are really reopening on December 7th?

Yes, public school buildings in New York City are reopening on December 7th, two and a half weeks after the NYC average seven-day positivity rate for COVID-19 hit exactly 3%, the city’s trigger for an in-person learning shutdown and a complete shift to remote learning.

The 3% threshold was agreed upon by de Blasio and school labor unions, including the powerful United Federation of Teachers, in addition to other measures like randomized testing of 10-20% of school populations.

Who is expected to show up in person to school on December 7th?

De Blasio is allowing 3K, pre-K, and K to 5th grade students to return to the classroom on December 7th, in keeping with his policy of prioritizing school reopening to younger children as they require more social and emotional learning than middle and high school students. Studies also show that younger students are less likely to transmit COVID-19.

When will the older students return?

There is no firm date on when students will be returning, though de Blasio has hinted that it may not happen until January, once the holiday break concludes.

How many students will be attending schools in person?

By early 2021, there will be an estimated 315,000 students—from 3K through high school— attending classes in person. This breaks down to 190,000 younger and District 75 students slated to return the week of December 7th, and another 125,000 middle and high school students expected to come back as soon as January.

The number of students remains murky since de Blasio revealed in November that 280,000 students have attended school in person “at least once,” meaning that some of those students may have completely switched back to remote learning. The other 35,000 students are those who signed up for in-person following a one-time opt-in period for the school year.

There were 1 million students attending the NYC public school system in the 2019-2020 school year; the city Department of Education has not disclosed total 2020-2021 enrollment numbers.

When will District 75 special education students return?

All District 75 students, regardless of age, will be returning to the classroom on December 10th. Unlike public schools, D75 schools, which serve students with special needs, have had the opportunity to go five days a week given the limitations imposed by remote learning.

Can students in full remote learning eventually return to the classroom this year?

No. The one-time opt-in period ended on November 15th, though Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has suggested he could reconsider. Initially, Carranza had instituted a quarterly opt-in period, but backtracked after principals complained that reconfiguring classes on a quarterly basis posed major challenges.

What’s different about schools reopening this time around?

The city Department of Education will maintain the same social distancing standards it had implemented when schools reopened in September. This will include temperature checks, mask wearing, and desks that are at least six feet apart.

The main difference is testing—and a greater push for students and their families to comply with testing policy. De Blasio has beefed up the city’s testing protocols at public schools. Before schools closed, while students and teachers at each school had to take part in a randomized testing program with 10-20% of a school’s population once a month, not all students brought in consent forms and schools never enforced any consequences for not participating.

Now, all students returning to in-person learning must consent to testing, because the state requires that 20% of each school community be tested once a week to get a clearer sense of COVID-19 rates in schools. Consent forms must be signed and on file upon returning. To sign up online, go to mystudent.nyc.

The only students who are not required to be tested are 3-K, pre-K, and Kindergarten; NYC Health Department commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi says that’s because they transmit the virus the least. Students who have a medical condition will also be exempt.

How are they expected to get cooperation from students on consent forms?

De Blasio and Carranza hope that the ability to attend school in-person just a few days a week will be enticing enough for families to provide student consent forms.

If any students do not have the permission slip signed by a parent or guardian by the time they begin school, then they will only learn remotely.

How long will in-person students be given to show up for school until they return?

De Blasio announced on Wednesday that in-person students will be given one week to show up to school before school administrators alert them that they’ll be strictly learning remotely.

"If, in the course of the week, your child doesn't show up [...], the school is going to say to you is, 'this is your last chance,'" de Blasio said. "You have to show up during this week or have a legitimate excuse or communicate with the school what's going on. If you don't, the school is going to let you know that your child will be moved to all remote."

A school in Red Hook with red doors slightly opened

A school in Red Hook

arrow
A school in Red Hook
Sai Mokhtari / Gothamist

Is it true that in-person learning can expand beyond the maximum three days?

Yes. De Blasio has stressed that schools can go five days a week, though it’s contingent on staffing. Since the school year’s sole opt-in period concluded, principals now have a firm idea of whether they have sufficient in-person educators to safely expand the number of in-person days for students. Principals are now assessing whether such a move is feasible in their school.

But de Blasio has still not revealed an updated tally of teachers hired for the last two months, leaving an opaque picture on the number of schools capable of shifting to all in-person learning.

How many schools will go five days a week?

De Blasio hasn’t revealed that number yet. On Wednesday, he did mention that some schools can go to five days a week the moment they begin next week.

For the other 700,000+ students, how much has remote learning improved?

While the city contends that remote learning has made strides since March, when the school system shifted completely to remote learning at the onset of the pandemic, most parents have stressed that remote learning needs significant improvement.

Issues relating to poor audio quality, slow broadband, and the inability to properly socialize remain obstacles for remote learners uncomfortable in returning to in-person learning this year.

What happens if there’s a COVID-19 case at school?

The same rules apply from before: If a school has a COVID-19 case in one classroom, the city’s so-called situation room investigates. Typically, students and staffers that came into contact will have to quarantine and meet remotely for 14 days if they come into contact with someone infected with COVID-19.

If two unlinked cases are discovered at a school in two separate classrooms, then the school shuts down for 24 hours, and reopens with students and staffers who came into contact with the COVID-19 cases in quarantine.

Doesn’t the state have a similar plan in place for school closures?

Sort of. This is where it gets confusing.

Since October, the state has instituted a tri-colored hot zone strategy consisting of yellow, orange, and red zones. When parts of Brooklyn and Queens were put into these zones in October, schools in orange and red zones were ordered to be closed since the state’s seven-day infection rate average in those neighborhoods stood above 3%. Schools in yellow zones — which were a buffer around the orange zone (which surrounded the red zone) — were allowed to remain open as long as 20% of a school community was tested weekly. This “testing out to keep schools open” approach was backed by state law, superseding anything New York City instituted.

Have restrictions at zones changed?

Yes. Eventually, Cuomo loosened the rules on school closures, at least for orange zones, saying that they can reopen four days after they first close, but they must still “test out.” Red zones had to stay closed. But on Monday, November 30th, Cuomo updated his policy saying schools in orange and red zones don’t have to close for four days if a testing program is already in place.

Schools that stay open in orange zones will now be required to test 20% of in-person students and staffers (a month ago that number was 25%). In red zones, the testing rate is now 30%. Given de Blasio’s promise that testing at public schools will be implemented across the system, with returning students required to consent to testing, it’s unlikely schools will close for four days.

This helps reconcile the confusion caused by Cuomo and de Blasio’s misaligned COVID-19 positivity rate thresholds.

Will the entire public school system have to close again after this?

On Monday, de Blasio said that the decision to close the entire school system won’t happen again, provided that the seven-day rolling positivity testing average rate for COVID-19 — as tracked by the state — does not hit 9%. That’s the trigger, set in July by Cuomo, to close all schools in a region down.

“This approach, now with more testing, with mandatory consent forms, we believe we can sustain and take it through to the point when we have a vaccine,” the mayor said.