Mayor Bill de Blasio’s eagerness to reopen classrooms for more students based on new federal guidance might be a bit hasty, according to the state Department of Health, which said Friday that all school districts must continue to abide by existing guidelines while the new guidance is reviewed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had released new policy on March 19th saying that elementary school students need only to stay three feet apart from each other, instead of six, as long as everyone is wearing a mask. Students and adult staff are still advised to stay six feet apart, and students should remain so when eating lunch or in common areas like auditoriums.
Immediately, de Blasio hailed the CDC guidance as opening “a world of possibilities for bringing kids back” and announced that the new distancing rules meant more students currently in full-time remote learning could choose to return to classrooms for hybrid learning beginning in April. On Friday, he announced on the Brian Lehrer Show that 25,000 remote students had already registered to return to in-person learning during a new opt-in period that opened March 24th and runs through April 7th.
But the state DOH said Friday it's still evaluating the CDC update and all New York school districts will need to continue to follow current state policy that maintains six feet of distancing.
“Schools must continue to follow the existing guidance from the New York State Department of Health. The CDC’s newest social distancing recommendations are currently under review,” said state DOH spokesperson Jill Montag.
The city’s Department of Education said the mayor’s decision to reopen the opt-in window was only rolled out to prepare for the future, and they're not breaking state policy.
“Our schools are continuing to follow the existing guidance. It’s been a week since the CDC released their guidance – we are wasting no time and proceeding with planning so that when we can implement the newest social distancing requirements, we can do so quickly,” said DOE spokesperson Danielle Filson.
United Federation of Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew said in a statement that reopening for more students is a “medical, not a political decision, and we will continue to rely on what our independent medical experts say, and what might be physically possible.”
He added, “Everyone in NYC has sacrificed too much for the system to rush blindly ahead, particularly given the emergence of the variants and the fact that while adults are vaccinated, children are not.”
The opt-in process has been rocky from the beginning of the school year. The DOE’s original plan was to allow remote students to switch to hybrid learning at four points in the school year. That plan was dropped after it became clear that staffing shortages and ever-shifting student numbers would be chaotic for teachers and administrators to handle. The DOE decided to hold an opt-in period in November that was billed as the last time families could choose to enroll in hybrid learning.
Currently about 315,000 out of the total 960,000 New York City public school students participate in some form of in-person learning.
A letter purportedly sent by Bayside High School principal Michael Athy this month to notify families about the new opt-in period was criticized by some parents advocating to reopen schools for using a tone to discourage students from returning to classrooms.
“You made a good decision when you chose Remote Learning for your child. Please stay with it,” the letter said. Athy’s letter said he wouldn’t send his own daughter back to a classroom for in-person learning, that “sickness, hospitalization or the possible death of a loved one are far more stressful than remote learning,” and that the school could not “guarantee” that students would be safe from COVID-19 exposure or that masks would be universally worn in classrooms.
Athy did not respond to an email request for comment and a phone number for the school was answered by a woman who said she was the receptionist and she couldn’t transfer calls from her cell phone.
“New York City schools are safe, and we already have 25,000 new students who have opted in to in-person learning because they want to return to classrooms. This letter is inaccurate and does not reflect our mission to maximize in-person learning for our students,” Filson of the DOE said. She added that the DOE is taking “appropriate follow-up action” with Athy over the letter.
Some parents who have pushed for reopening schools have said they’ve witnessed similar tactics from administrators urging them to stay on remote learning.
Karen Vaites, a Manhattan parent and an outspoken advocate for reopening schools, said her child’s principal implied “a much better program fully remote” instead of hybrid learning.
"He made his feelings known that he thought remote was the best way to proceed,” Vaites said. “He never told families not to opt in, but he took pains to highlight the downsides of coming in person."
The principal also emphasized students would only get around 5-7 in-person days a month and "never heard a word from him that school was safe," Vaites said, adding, "this isn't a system trying to get kids in the classroom."
Natalia Petrzela, another Manhattan parent, said that her third-grade daughter’s school administration repeatedly shared the same sentiments.
As schools opened in the fall, “every communication from the school seemed to pave the way towards closure rather than imagining a path toward reopening or maximizing in-person learning (or even excelling at remote),” said Petrzela in an email.
“What felt to me like the total lack of commitment to make the provision of in-person education a paramount priority - and the treatment of parents who pushed for it as troublemakers - and the distress it caused my daughter and family is what pushed us to go private," she added.