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Mayor Bill de Blasio says NYC schools can hold lessons outdoors when students return next month

Bill de Blasio unveiled a new school learning plan Monday, allowing teachers in New York City to hold classes outdoors as more than 750,000 students prepare to return to for in-person learning across the Big Apple next month.

During his daily press briefing, de Blasio said he hoped the scheme would help to open up a ‘whole new world’ of learning when classes resume on September 10.

The mayor said principals will be able to set up classrooms in their schoolyards, or even request additional space in city parks, playgrounds or on sidewalks beginning from Monday.

However, it will be up to school to teachers and principals to best determine how to orchestrate outdoor lessons safely.

At this stage, the city will reportedly be prioritizing the needs of the 27 hardest-hit neighborhoods from COVID-19, in addition to the schools who have limited or no usable outdoor space to utilize on campus grounds.

While weather remains a concern, de Blasio advised teachers to make the most of outdoor spaces when conditions permit.

‘We know the disease doesn’t spread the same outdoors,’ de Blasio said Monday. ‘Starting today we empower our principals to make the maximum use of outdoors. It’s up to them, if that’s what they think works for their community.’

 

When quizzed whether he’d considered delaying the September 10 school start date to allow more time for teachers to plan for the new initiative, de Blasio said the city would be moving forward as planned.

The mayor added some principals have already identified potential outdoor spaces to utilize, and said he didn’t think the scheme would be cost-prohibitive.

The new learning plan comes after de Blasio faced mounting pressure from parents and local elected officials to leverage outdoor spaces to provide additional room for in-person schooling.

Last week, City Council Member Brad Lander held a rally at City Hall with parents, teachers and a group of students to encourage the city to use some outdoor gathering spaces to teach, as opposed to the traditional classroom setting in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

‘We heard those voices that said, “Could we do something different under these circumstances?” The answers is yes. And this will apply to our public schools, our charter schools, private and religious schools, learning bridge schools you name it, one standard for all,’ the mayor said.

De Blasio said it would be up to teachers and principals to best determine how to orchestrate outdoor lessons.

‘We want to give schools the option to do as much outdoors as they can,’ the mayor said. ‘Starting today, we empower our principals to determine the maximum amount they can do outdoors.’

On prioritizing the neighborhoods worst-affected by the pandemic, de Blasio said the city ‘owed it’ to those communities, for they have ‘suffered so much, we owe it to them to make sure they get every possible advantage going forward.’

The mayor said while outdoor learning is far from the perfect solution, it should add flexibility for educators and an effective alternative way of teaching for many schools.

City Council Member Lander applauded de Blasio’s announcement Monday, writing: ‘Outdoor space in streets, parks, and playgrounds will give schools much needed flexibility as they plan to safely bring our students and teachers together this fall — for outdoor lunch, gym, recess, instruction, and related services. I’m grateful to the city leaders who listened to our pleas for this common sense plan to increase the footprint of our schools at this urgent.’

The subject as to whether schools in New York City should reopen for a mixture of in-person and virtual lessons next month remains a fiercely contested topic of debate.

A growing number of other major school districts, such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, and Newark in New Jersey, have all opted for all-virtual starts to the school year.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo appeared to stoke the controversy on Friday when he said he was still unsure whether he’d be sending his children back into school for in-person lessons next month.

‘This is a risky proposition no matter how you do it … let’s be honest,’ Cuomo said. ‘You’re bringing a lot of people into a congregate setting. Do you have the testing? Do you have the tracing? Do you have the social distance requirements? We’ve seen schools open, we’ve seen colleges open and get into trouble in one week, so there’s a lot of questions to answer before, but that’s the dialogue we’re having now, and again, if it’s not a smart plan, then it shouldn’t happen.’

Mayor de Blasio, however, remained resolute about the New York City’s reopening plans Monday, insisting it has the ‘strongest schools reopening plan in the country and improves on plans shown to work across the world.

‘We’ve created a new gold standard,’ he continued. ‘We’ve combined them into one strategy for safety for all.’ 

So far, nearly three-quarters of the city’s school student have applied to return for in-person classes on September 10. 

The students will attend lessons on campus for between one to three days per week – depending on each school’s available resources – with no more than 10 students at one time, who will take turns in classrooms on an alternating pattern.

Meanwhile, 26 percent – or nearly 300,000 families – requested that their children continue to learn remotely full-time and not return to class when school resumes after summer break.

Around 85 percent of the school system’s 75,000 teachers also intend to return, while the remaining 15 percent will be conducting digital-only classes.

City Hall pledged to upgrade classroom ventilation systems in schools across the city, as well as overhauling cleaning regimes and implementing a mandatory face covering policy for all staff and students.

Hand-washing and hand-sanitizer stations will also be located throughout the school buildings.

Those who decided against in-school instruction can transition into a blended schedule at various times during the academic year. Those who opted-in from the start will also be permitted to return to remote learning upon request.

Individual classes and schools may be closed temporarily should students or teachers test positive for COVID-19 at any stage. All of the city’s 1,800 schools will be shut down if the citywide positivity rate exceeds an average of three percent over a seven-day period.

The city’s infection rate has remained below one percent for the last 17 consecutive days.

In total, New York City has suffered 237,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus since the pandemic began in March, with 23,658 deaths.

If at least two COVID-19 cases are confirmed in different classrooms at a school, the mayor’s plan calls for the school to be closed for 14 days. If one or two linked cases are recorded in the same classroom, then only that classroom must close for 14 days.

In addition to the blended learning plan, the city is also calling for random temperature checks for students and teachers, with a 14-day mandatory quarantine order for anyone who tests positive.

New York City teachers on Wednesday threatened to strike or bring legal action unless the city government addresses specific safety demands like a more rigorous COVID-19 testing plan and protocols for isolating students who show symptoms of the virus.

The union has called on the mayor to address ventilation issues in school buildings and implement stricter procedures on busing students, in addition to demands for increased testing students and staff.

‘The minute we feel that the mayor is trying to force people in to a situation that is unsafe… we go to court, we take a job action,’ said Michael Mulgrew, president of the union representing the city’s 133,000 teachers, adding that a ‘job action’ could include a strike.

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