NYC’s middle school students to head back to buildings this month

NYC’s middle school students to head back to buildings this month

Amy Zimmer, Chalkbeat New York

New York City’s middle school students will return to their campuses on Feb. 25, education department officials told principals on Monday. 

Middle school teachers will return the day before to ready their classrooms, and they will be prioritized to receive coronavirus vaccinations during the mid-winter recess, from Feb. 12 – 21, according to education department officials.

Middle and high school students have been learning online exclusively for about three months, after Mayor Bill de Blasio shut down all school buildings on Nov. 19, when the city surpassed a 3% weekly coronavirus positivity rate. Two weeks later, he reopened buildings for elementary school students and those in District 75, which serve children of all ages with the most complex disabilities, prioritizing those likeliest to struggle with remote learning. 

De Blasio had said previously he would announce a plan this month for reopening middle schools, but some of the limiting factors included school-based COVID-19 testing capacity as well as vaccine access. To that end, education officials said they planned to increase staffing with testing teams and the “Situation Room” rapid response team charged with quickly helping principals respond when cases of the coronavirus are detected among students and staff. 

After the mayor reopened elementary school and District 75 schools in December, he removed a systemwide shutdown trigger, but assured improved safety precautions at reopened schools by increasing random coronavirus testing of students and staff from monthly to weekly. As testing has expanded and cases have gone up in schools — just as they have citywide — the increase in testing has taxed the Situation Room. Many educators and families have a litany of concerns about how it’s handling positive cases, including long waits for test results, failure to let “close contacts” know that they may have been exposed, conflicting guidance for principals, and confusing letters to families.

More than a month ago, the mayor had pledged he would staff up the Situation Room after winter break.

Contact tracing is seen as a critical component of school safety plans (along with measures like social distancing, mask wearing and good ventilation). A number of studies have found that, while rare, spread within schools can happen. These studies generally rely on the accuracy of contact tracing.

When previously discussing bringing middle school students back, the mayor had also expressed concern about the coronavirus variant from Britain, which is more highly transmissible, alarming many public health officials. 

“Obviously, the big factors here are what’s going on with the coronavirus, in general, what’s going on with the variants, what’s going on with the vaccine. We want to keep vaccinating teachers, and school staff, and we want to deepen that effort,” de Blasio said last month when asked about reopening middle and high schools. “But also, it’s having enough testing capacity, and we’re working on that right now.”

One positive coronavirus case forces a classroom to quarantine for 10 days, and two cases at a school trigger a 24-hour buildings closure. If those cases are found to be “unlinked,” the building will remain closed for 10 days (down from 14 earlier in the school year).  

Many school communities have been frustrated by the lack of consistency because of the closures, with more than 700 buildings closing down for at least 10 days in the month since winter break, according to public data. Roughly 53% of the 1,052 school buildings that reopened in December have experienced closures of two to 10 days, according to education department officials. 

While some families see the frequent closures as a reason to close all schools until coronavirus rates go down in the community, others see it as a reason to change the threshold for building shutdowns.The mayor said he is now “reevaluating” the two-case threshold.  

City officials did not announce a reopening date for high schools, some of which are being used as vaccination sites. Teachers started getting vaccinated about a month ago.

Many families have been urging the mayor to reopen buildings for middle and high school students, concerned about the isolation and mental health stress children are experiencing as well as the challenges that come with online learning. 

Roughly 62,000 middle school students are expected to return to in-person classes, according to education department data based on the number of children attending before their buildings shut down. But it’s unclear how many of these students will return. The education department had said, for instance, that roughly 290,000 elementary school and District 75 students were eligible to go back when their buildings reopened. But the department has yet to release figures on how many children ultimately returned.

Officials are asking middle schools to offer five days a week to as many students as possible instead of the blended model that mixes in-person and remote learning. 

“We are encouraging your school to begin planning on how you will serve all blended learning students in-person as many days per week as possible,” according to a letter sent from the first deputy chancellor’s office to principals last month, “which may necessitate modifying previously assigned teacher programs.”

The letter advised prioritizing students with disabilities for additional in-person days, followed by students living in shelters and those learning English as a second language.

Still, the majority of the city’s roughly 960,000 public school students will continue to learn remotely full time, as roughly 70% of children opted to learn from home. 

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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