#childsafety | NYC Public Schools Reopening Plan: Here’s What We Know So Far

Updated August 12th, 2020

With September fast approaching, city officials are crafting a plan to reopen schools for New York City’s 1.1 million public school students — but key questions are still unanswered.

We’ll be updating this page, gothamist.com/schoolreopening, as we get more information. You can also send us tips and questions at tips@gothamist.com. Here’s what we know so far:

What is NYC’s plan for public schools?

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal, each of New York City’s 1,606 public schools will offer “blended learning” that’s a hybrid of part-time in-person instruction and remote learning.

Each school’s principal will choose one of two models so that student populations can maintain social distancing rules: one model has the school population divided into two cohorts, and the other option has the population divided into three cohorts.


The DOE’s two-cohort model


Screenshot of the DOE's three-cohort model


The DOE’s three-cohort model


Depending on the school’s chosen model, most students will attend in-person instruction in their schools between one to three days a week. The rest of the time, kids will be enrolled in remote education — Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza vowed that “New York City students will be learning five days a week, whether it’s in person, or at home.” Students also have the option to enroll in full-time remote learning.

At any point in the school year, students can switch from the so-called “blended learning” model to full-time remote learning. At each quarter, students can opt into blended learning with in-person instruction.

In the blended model, the DOE’s health and safety plans call for students to remain in a small group with the same people in the same room, with teachers moving from class to class.

Schools submitted their preferred model on July 23rd.

UPDATED August 12th: The DOE says students will learn their schedules before the end of August.

What is going on with remote learning? Will my kids be taught by their own teachers?

The “vast majority” of students in full remote learning will be taught by teachers from their schools, according to the DOE, with “some limited exceptions on a school-by-school basis.” The plan is to offer students learning remotely with some form of daily live instruction, which can be done with the whole class, in small groups, or with individual students.

The president of the United Federation of Teachers union, Michael Mulgrew, told the membership in late July that there could be district-wide educators to cover schools that don’t have enough teachers to teach remotely. Mulgrew also told the membership that teachers will not be required to do both remote and in-person teaching at the same time, though he added that some specialty teachers may have to because there aren’t enough classes in their area.

Questions remain over how much live instruction will remote learning include—there was no minimum number of hours of live instruction during the spring semester after New York schools were closed, but the summer session did have required minimums.
NEW, August 12th: The deadline for families to tell the DOE if they were enrolling exclusively in remote learning was August 7th, though in reality students can switch from blended learning to remote learning at any point in the school year. De Blasio announced Monday that 26% of students—or 264,000 students—enrolled in full-time remote learning. Given the design of the enrollment survey — those who did not fill out the online form were by default registered for the school’s hybrid in-person program — and the deadline which families may have missed, the numbers may be over-counting those who are truly planning to show up for in-person learning.

Will there be live instruction?

The DOE said live instruction will be provided every day for kids enrolled in blended or remote learning —the youngest students will get 15-20 consecutive minutes of live instruction, and increase by grade level though the complete details of the time requirements were not yet available.

Does every school have to offer a hybrid plan?

The DOE originally said only families can decide on remote learning, not schools – but at the end of July, Carranza said schools could apply for exceptions to the blending learning model. Some schools like Stuyvesant and NEST+m high schools have reportedly considered switching to an entirely-remote model for all of the student population.

The DOE said neither of the schools had submitted proposals or exceptions. Final plans are to be provided by principals, the agency added.

Schools can ask for an exception to the DOE’s proposed models if:

  • “The recommended models are not feasible and safe given space, staffing, family choice and expected in-person attendance”
  • “Schools have unique programmatic needs that must be addressed, to better meet the needs of the community”

Still, the DOE seems to trying to dissuade schools from seeking exceptions, with a spokesperson saying there are “serious concerns about a model that would only provide remote instruction, if that is not the universal request from all parents in the community.”

When is the first day of school?

No official first day of school has been announced. Though de Blasio had mentioned he wants some students back in school on September 10th, he has backed down from that date and now says the first day might be announced in September.

What does the state have to say about schools reopening? Will Governor Andrew Cuomo reverse any NYC decisions?

UPDATED August 12th: Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on August 7th that based on the state’s low infection rates, he has authorized all school districts in New York state to re-open this fall for in-person education, including New York City.

Cuomo’s benchmark for schools to reopen was that infection rates in the region must be 5% or less on a 14-day average. He has also said the schools will close if the infection rate is 9% or higher on a 7-day average.

However, de Blasio has announced a more ambitious threshold for the city’s public schools, saying that they will reopen in September only if the coronavirus positivity rate in the city stays below 3%, as it has since June 10th. (The state has overall guidelines, but will leave the details up to the districts themselves.) The positivity rate is based on a seven-day rolling average of tests.

Each district’s plan will still need to be approved by the state’s health and education departments, though Cuomo did not give deadlines on those approvals.

How will the schools be cleaned?

Guidelines for schools from the Centers for Disease Control emphasize small groups, spaced out desks, social distancing, hygiene and sanitizing buildings as a way of keeping schools safe and clean.

While inside a public school building, students and teachers will be asked to wear masks and remain six feet apart, though Carranza wants the policy to be implemented in service of educational goals. “We are not talking about punishing kids. We want to make sure it’s an educationally sound approach, and it’s gonna be a lot of encouragement,” he said.

School facilities will be deep cleaned on a nightly basis with “electrostatic disinfectant sprayers,” and the DOE is upgrading HVAC systems in school buildings.

The DOE also surveyed school handwashing sinks, HVAC systems, and window functionality and said it’s working with the New York City School Construction Authority “to complete repairs and ensure air circulation before start of school.” The DOE added it’s “also upgrading central HVAC system filters from MERV 8 to MERV 13 where appropriate.”

The DOE is also promising to supply all schools with hand sanitizer, soap, and disinfectants.

UPDATED August 12th: Ventilation in the 1,300 DOE facilities is a concern, with reportedly less than half of the city’s school buildings built with HVAC systems. School staff have reported that windows in many school buildings don’t open. The DOE has said that repairs will be completed by the opening of school and “rooms without adequate ventilation will not be occupied.”

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

The DOE has released plans for schools experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks that involve contact tracing and several possible scenarios. The scenarios range from a single positive case, in which students and staff with close contact with an infected person in a classroom will self-quarantine for 14 days, to at least two cases in different classrooms, which would close the entire school for 14 days and result in a shift to full remote learning.

A screenshot of the chart from the Department of Education that lays out various scenarios if a COVID-19 case or outbreak happens in a school community this fall. The scenarios range from shutting down one classroom to shutting down entire schools.


The DOE chart that lays out various scenarios if a COVID-19 case or outbreak happens in a school community this fall.


An epidemiologist called the NYC school reopening and contact tracing plan “gutsy,” adding, “And, you know, on some level it sort of has to happen.”

NEW August 12th: The DOE released a detailed health and safety plan that said even if New York City’s positivity rates for coronavirus remain below the 3% threshold set by de Blasio in his schools reopening plan, the entire school system may still be shut down if there were “recurrent, uncontrolled outbreaks of COVID-19” in one or more of the city’s public schools.

The DOE plans also call for each school’s formation of a Building Response Team that will be responsible for “managing and supporting” any COVID-19 outbreaks in a school community. The BRT will identify isolation rooms in each school building where ailing students or staff can be monitored until they go home. Students and staff are expected to perform their own daily health screenings and temperature checks before coming to school each day, and the DOE said it will provide thermometers for families who need one.

What about students with disabilities? Multilingual Learners?

District 75 schools for students with disabilities will offer in-person instruction for all their students: either a model with two student groups who receive in-person instruction alternating every other week, or a second model of two student groups meeting two to three days per week (rotating Monday). Some students may receive in-person instruction daily depending on need.

Students who require Individualized Education Programs will also be instructed in person as much as possible depending on their school model, according to the DOE.

The students enrolled in bilingual learning will “continue to be provided with the required supports which include [English as a New Language], Home Language Arts, and bilingual content areas,” the DOE said, but offered no further details on how these programs will happen in remote learning contexts.

What about students in temporary housing?

Thirty nonprofit social service organizations are calling on the city to prioritize the needs of students experiencing homelessness in their plans to reopen public schools. The groups want to see the city Department of Education offer these students in-person instruction full time and commit to providing legally required transportation. Among the signatories: Children’s Aid, Advocates for Children, Legal Services NYC, the Legal Aid Society, the NAACP New York State Conference, and the Partnership for the Homeless.

“Only 60% of all NYC students who are homeless graduate from high school,” the letter said. “For NYC students living in shelters, the outcomes are even more stark—fewer than half graduate from high school and two-thirds are chronically absent from school. The pandemic has only magnified these inequities.”

Under the current plan, principals would determine how many days students can attend in-person based on the available space. While the DOE has not offered details on who will be receiving school-bus and other transportation yet, the reopening proposal submitted to the state said school-bus service may be more limited than in the past:

“While it is widely recognized that the current pandemic presents unique challenges to providing school bus service and that it may not be possible to provide service in all cases, to the extent possible, DOE will provide school transportation, as required, to include all public, non-public, charter schools, students with special needs and students in temporary housing situations. Because of this unique situation, it may not be possible to provide transportation through a conventional mode such as a bus, and may require other modes to be employed to satisfy transportation needs, such as MetroCard.”

What childcare options will be available for working parents of young children who aren’t in school yet, and kids on their remote learning days?

The city intends to provide 100,000 childcare spots this fall for families with young children and middle school or younger students enrolled in blended learning, with the kids fully supervised by city staffers at places like libraries and cultural centers. The plan is to source space for 50,000 children on any school day, de Blasio said. The city’s Office of Management and Budget said it was looking for suitable spaces to expand the program.

The city’s Regional Enrichment Centers, which provide childcare for the families of essential workers, will not operate after school starts.

What about the safety of teachers, school staffers, and custodians?

Teachers can opt to stay home and teach remotely, Carranza and the DOE said—but only if they themselves have a documented existing medical condition and submit a Reasonable Accommodation Request through the DOE’s Medical Bureau.

The DOE said it anticipates up to 20% of its employee workforce to be eligible to work remotely, based on state and federal guidance regarding age and high risk criteria. The reopening plan calls for all DOE staff members to take a COVID-19 test shortly before the first day of school at 34 city-run testing locations where they will have “priority access” and expedited results. The city-run testing sites will also test families, according to the DOE, though it’s not clear if students and families will receive expedited results as well.

The DOE and UFT say teachers over the age of 65 will “automatically” be granted accommodation, while teachers between 50 to 64 years old will be considered. If teachers submit documentation proving that an existing medical condition can worsen if they return to the classroom, they will be granted an accommodation, the UFT said.

A full list of acceptable medical conditions for an RAR can be found on the UFT website.

Mulgrew said the UFT is also pushing the DOE to allow teachers to work remotely if they live with at-risk family members as well.

The Local 372 union, which represents non-teaching staff including lunch and food services workers, school and health aides, crossing guards, substance abuse counselors, paraprofessionals and parent coordinators, said their membership will be able to apply for RARs. Its union president, Shaun Francois, said he’s working on staggered scheduling for his membership who will have to work in-person such as food services.

Custodian engineers will also have the chance to apply for RARs, according to their union Local 891 president and business manager Robert Troeller.

The DOE said, “Schools and offices may consider the needs of staff who may not feel comfortable returning to an in-person educational environment when making assignments and modifying work settings and/or schedules where possible,” but did not provide further details on how much flexibility will be given to staff.

UPDATED August 12th: Carranza announced Monday that 15% of teachers — or approximately 2,000 — have thus far applied for Reasonable Accommodation Requests to teach remotely. Educators have increasingly pushed back against de Blasio’s plan, with Mulgrew asking for a dedicated contact tracing program for schools, and a group of District 15 principals pressuring the DOE on numerous provisions, including phased reopening in late September to early October.

An open air school in NYC circa 1900.


An open air school in NYC circa 1900.

Library of Congress/Bain News Service, publisher

Is outdoor learning a possibility?

The DOE said it’s scouring for every setting imaginable to use as classroom or childcare space—including large venues such as the Jacob Javits Center. Officials have remained vague over whether an outdoor learning setting is an option, though studies have shown that outdoor transmission of the virus is significantly reduced. There is currently a push from parents to relocate classrooms outdoors, which was done in the past.

In its health and safety plans, the DOE laid out a vision of what students will see inside their school buildings this fall: “School leaders must create plans to support movement that upholds physical distancing throughout the building, e.g. the use of one directional stairwells and single file travel patterns.”

Elevator usage will be restricted, and cafeterias and auditoriums likely to be turned into instructional space.

UPDATED August 12th: The DOE said on August 7th that “no firm decisions” have been made on alternative classrooms outside or in rented spaces.

How will kids get to school?

The DOE said it will continue to provide school transportation “to the extent possible,” adding that use of the MTA system may be necessary in situations where buses can’t be used to safely transport students.

The plan calls for as many families as possible to help the school district by “transporting their children to school on their own, walking, or biking.” In cases where families are using public transit, parents should have their children wear a face covering and practice social distancing while en route to and returning home from school as much as possible, the DOE said.

Masks will be available on all school buses.

UPDATED August 12th: School buses will also enforce social distancing, reducing each bus’s capacity to approximately 25% of its normal passenger load.

What’s the screening process for students and staff coming into school buildings?

NEW August 11th: The DOE said schools will perform random temperature screening checks, and any student who registers higher than 100.0 degrees during the screening check will be prohibited from entering the building. The plan does allow for circumstances involving young students who arrived at school by bus to enter the building even with a fever, to be isolated and monitored until they can be sent home.

Testing is still a major component of the school reopening plan and the DOE is asking their school staffers to get tested at least seven days before the first day of school, and to get tested at least once a month afterwards.

In addition, students and staff cannot come to school for in-person learning if within the past 14 days they had traveled internationally or from a state with “widespread community transmission” as determined by New York’s travel advisories.

What will lunchtime look like in schools when indoor dining hasn’t yet been permitted in the rest of New York City?

Cafeterias may be repurposed into classroom space, and students will likely eat their lunches in their classrooms to minimize interactions. The DOE said grab-and-go meals will be available for breakfast and lunch each day at schools, and will be also available for kids engaged in remote learning each day for pickup at their school or another location.

Kids will be taught while they’re eating lunch, the DOE announced in early August. The program is modeled after the department’s Breakfast in the Classroom program, in which students eat lunch during one of their regularly scheduled instructional periods. The DOE said that younger grades will have “fun, engaging and enriching” lunch instruction, such as “interactive read-alouds, social-emotional learning, content through music,” while middle and high school students will have class-based instruction.

Will students and staff wear masks while inside school buildings?

NEW August 12th: The DOE’s policy is that “face coverings must be worn at all times except while eating or drinking.” Carranza has said that students who refuse to wear a mask for personal — rather than medical or developmental — reasons will be sent home.

Will there be after-school programs or sports offered?

NEW August 12th: The DOE said on August 7th that information is forthcoming on after-school programs, noting “after-school programs will require increased custodial labor and programs will incur extra extended use costs to pay for those services.” Interscholastic sports are still not permitted by the state Department of Health.

What’s the next step? When do families need to decide which plan they want?

UPDATED August 12th: New York City officials received a two-week extension to August 14th from the state Education Department on submitting school-specific plans, citing the difficulties involved in planning for the nation’s largest school district. The district will also need approval from the state Department of Health.

Where can I learn more information?

The DOE will host a number of virtual town halls — upcoming ones on the schedule are:

Wednesday, August 12th at 6:30

Thursday, August 27th at 6:30

Click here to sign up for the town halls and find more information.

With David Cruz and Jen Chung

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