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‘A two-tiered level of safety’: Some NYC schools can follow social distancing, others cannot

Young students with backpacks walking down hallway of elementary school.
The New York City principals union is asking questions about whether social distancing will be required, or only implemented in schools where it won’t interfere with opening classrooms for all students.
Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Walking through the hallway at Francis Lewis High School is like an Olympic sport, said Arthur Goldstein, an English as a second language teacher and dean at the coveted Queens school.

The building operates at 203% of its intended capacity, according to education department data.

“The hallways are diabolical. You’ve never seen anything like it,” Goldstein said. “I have taught classes of up to 50 students… We can’t do three feet of social distancing.”

With the 2021 school year just a month away, it’s still unclear whether — or how — New York City schools will adhere to social distancing measures as COVID looms over the return to classes. Schools are slated to reopen to all students, as the mayor has promised, without an option for remote instruction.

On Thursday, the Council for School Supervisors and Administrators, or CSA, the union representing principals and other school administrators, sent an email to members noting confusion over whether schools would have to comply with social distancing as a strict rule or only in cases where it’s possible — as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. Sparking the uncertainty were capacity reports shared from the education department that “gave the impression that all schools must maintain three feet of social distancing for all students at all times,” the email to principals notes.

“The city obviously wants it both ways, to offer no remote option and for families to believe that students and staff can maintain three feet of social distancing at all schools at all times,” the email said.

In a separate letter to the mayor and chancellor, the union’s head said that the “majority of schools” would be unable to maintain three feet of social distancing with their full student rosters and said the union has requested an “immediate” meeting with city leaders to gain clarity on what the rules will be.

The education department said that officials are “working hand in hand with principals to maximize social distancing and ensure the absolute safest learning environments for our kids.” The department has been holding weekly office hours to help school leaders address space issues, conducting building walkthroughs, and encouraging “creative” use of space, said education department spokesperson Katie O’Hanlon.

She noted that some schools have removed unneeded furniture to make more room. Others have implemented grab-and-go meals and will be using outdoor space for lunch.

Last fall, the need for social distancing led to complicated hybrid schedules, with students learning in school buildings part time and at home the rest of the school week. Even then, those socially distanced schedules were made possible by the fact that the majority of children stayed out of buildings entirely, opting to learn exclusively from home.

‘Be prepared to pivot to remote instruction’

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that schools maintain social distancing wherever possible — but to prioritize bringing students back in classrooms.

This week, the New York State education department released reopening guidance that is essentially a compilation of federal guidelines. In it, the state echoes calls for three feet of space between students whenever possible, and six feet between adults and students, and between unvaccinated adults.

The 21-page document also restates guidance to place students into cohorts to minimize potential exposure to the virus — something that would be complicated for middle and high schools, when students switch classes multiple times a day. For lunch, the state document recommends using outdoor space and limiting meals to classrooms in areas of higher transmission of the virus. (New York City is currently considered a high transmission area.)

“As transmission levels rise, schools should be prepared to take steps such as increasing physical distancing to minimize transmission. Schools should plan for all contingencies and be prepared to pivot to remote instruction as necessary,” the guidance states.

Dr. Mercedes Carnethon, a professor at Northwestern University and the vice chair of the department of preventive medicine, said the last two years of interrupted learning have proven the importance of getting students back in buildings — and that it can be done safely in structured settings like schools, where public health policies are enforced. She noted that social distancing is imperfect, and said that masking, screening, and testing are “stronger measures.”

“Social distancing within a school is worth an effort, but since it is not likely that students actually do stay three or six feet apart throughout an entire day, distancing should not be the deal breaker,” she said.

Carnethon said the delta variant appeared more transmissible: someone with it could potentially infect five or six more people compared to the original strain that infected two or three more people. Southern states that have already returned to classes in communities with low vaccination rates and no mask mandates have seen a surge in cases, abrupt school closures, and climbing pediatric hospitalizations. Though New York City has released few concrete details about the new year, officials have consistently emphasized that they plan to have several layers of protection in schools, including mandated masking, upgraded ventilation and two air purifiers in every room, as well as virus testing on campuses.

Plus they are requiring that teachers are vaccinated or submit weekly COVID tests, and they are ramping up efforts to vaccinate eligible children. (Those under 12 may see a vaccine before the year is through.) Fifty-three percent of New York City children ages 12-17 have at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the city. Roughly 60% of school staff have been vaccinated, though that is likely an undercount because it doesn’t include those who got their shots outside of New York City.

Jaline Gerardin, who has done statistical modeling on COVID for the city of Chicago as an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University, acknowledged that little is known about heading back to school in the context of delta. If students return to buildings without social distancing measures, Gerardin stressed the importance of robust testing to make sure that mitigation policies are still working in the face of the more transmissible variant. She also emphasized the importance of vaccination, which is highly effective at preventing infections, serious illness, and death.

“If I were a parent and I were inclined to freak out, social distancing is not the thing I would freak out about,” she said. “I think vaccination is more important. I think ventilation is more important. I think masking is more important.”

How many schools won’t be able to follow social distancing?

City leaders and the teachers union have given conflicting numbers for how many schools will have trouble maintaining social distancing. The education department has said only 60 schools still face challenges, according to a recent New York Times report, while the teachers union recently estimated 200 do.

Teachers and parents in overcrowded schools are particularly worried.

Paulette Healy, an education advocate in Brooklyn with two children in public schools, was skeptical of the city’s calculations. Her daughter attends middle school in District 20, which has struggled with jam-packed buildings for years. She said that education department projections for how many students should fit on campus with social distancing measures in place had factored-in space in the gym, which is under construction and not usable, and the principal’s office, which apparently could fit 28 students. She is worried about lunch, when hundreds of children will eat unmasked in a basement cafeteria.

“We are very, very scared,” Healy said. “It’s pretty much going to look like what it did prior to COVID, which is no social distancing in place.”

Goldstein, the Francis Lewis High School teacher, called it “unconscionable” for the city to let schools that can employ social distancing do so, while those that can’t, simply won’t.

“How can they say you can socially distance in your school and not in my school?” Goldstein asked. “It’s not as outrageous in my school, where at least the students can get vaccinated. We have little kids in other schools, who can’t get vaccinated.”

The school already operates on a multi-session, where one student might attend from periods one to eight, while another might go from two to nine. But he wondered if the school might have to spread out student schedules even more. Juniors and seniors, for example, might attend in the morning, while freshmen and sophomores go in the afternoon, he suggested.

Brooklyn Technical High School, which is the nation’s largest school, also already staggers its schedules so that there are between 4,000 and 6,000 students at a given time in the building, said Katie Moylan, a history teacher at the prestigious but overcrowded institution. The building is operating at 134% capacity, she noted.

“Getting through the hallway in a normal year is a bit like swimming,” Moylan said. She joked that she follows the draft of taller students — using the waves or currents they create — to help push through the crowds.

“I’m worried about a situation where it’s a two-tiered level of safety,” she said, “where you end up with these overcrowded schools that are less safe. Does that impact where you enroll your child? Will there be a mass exodus to charters?”

Moylan wondered whether some of the stimulus money from the federal government could be used by schools to look at alternative scheduling. For instance, she wondered, could the school move physical education classes outside so others could be held in the gym.

Last year, Moylan live streamed her classes — an exhausting experience she does not want to repeat.

“There are no good answers at this point. We’re all very tired. I’m sure parents are as well,” Moylan said.

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