Hunts Point Community Partnership Director Shamekia Gordon distributes Chromebooks to a community student as part of Covid Relief efforts. Photo: Jill Roche Gomez

More students likely to resume in-person learning with new opt-in period

South Bronx families and students across the city have an opportunity this week to opt back into in-person learning, thanks to low rates of COVID-19 transmission in schools and a new Center for Disease Control announcement requiring less space between students in school buildings. 

Parents interested in having their students return to some in-person learning originally had until Wednesday, April 7 to make the change, but the city extended the date earlier this week to Friday, April 9. 

“We want families to have more time to consider returning back to our classrooms. And we want you to have the time to make these decisions in a timely manner,” said New York City Schools Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter, a longtime Bronx educator, at a press conference Monday morning. 

“We will continue to stay deeply connected to the science around this pandemic, but the tides have changed and we’re looking forward to bringing more consistency to our schools and to our classrooms,” she added.

While elementary, middle and high schools have all resumed some degree of in-person learning, families originally had only one opportunity back in the fall to opt in for this method of instruction. About 70% decided to keep their kids learning remotely. 

This meant that even as schools have opened their doors, most students have remained home.  The opt-in window permits them to select a blended learning approach, which is a mixture of in-person days at school and remote learning days at home.  Days and times for in-class and remote instruction vary by school.  

The C.D.C announced March 19 that K-12 students should maintain at least 3 feet of distance in classroom settings as opposed to the previous 6 feet, which gives more room in classrooms for students to be physically present.  

Porter said opting in would give students the opportunity to finish a difficult year interacting face to face with other students and teachers for at least part of their week. “One thing this year has taught us is that any time in the classroom is valuable, the most important time is spent between teachers and students in classrooms, and nothing can replace that. And we have a third of the school year left,” she said.

Interested families can either call 311 or complete the New York City Department of Education Learning Preference Survey form to express their interest. 

This process only applies to students attending regular public schools. South Bronx students who attend public or private charter schools will need to reach out to their school individually to discuss the potential of returning. Families with children who ultimately return to the classroom under this change should note that they’ll need to submit a consent form for in-school COVID-19 testing prior to the student’s arrival. 

Porter said Pre-K students and students in kindergarten through grade 5, including children in special education District 75, who opt in for the blending learning before the deadline closes April 9 will return to the classroom in mid April. Older students in grades 6-12 will return at a later date that has yet to be determined by the Department of Education. 

It’s been a tumultuous year for the New York City public school system, the nation’s biggest. New York was the first large city district to resume in-person learning in October but reversed back to remote learning last November as COVID-19 cases began to tick back up as the city barreled into the holiday season. 

Elementary schools reopened for some in-person learning on Dec. 7, which was followed by middle schools on Feb. 25. High schoolers made their return March 22. 

Many families still have concerns about the coronavirus and worry that school’s don’t have the resources needed to keep their children safe.  

Gabrielle Ramos, Department of Education chief of staff, acknowledged that the return to in-person learning had “a bumpy start,” but said much more data is available now 

“We want our students to be back,” Ramos said during a forum hosted by City & State last week. “The data shows our buildings are probably the safest place in New York City and we have found the more time people spend in our school buildings, the more comfortable they are with all the health and safety protocols we have in place and they really do feel safe.”

Thanks to weekly random testing, the city has determined that the positivity rate within schools has been around .57% since October — a very low number, according to Ramos.

“I think the testing operation itself has been the gold standard,” she said. “It’s certainly kept our schools open and it has allowed us to have access to data that shows us our schools are safe places to be.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio also announced Monday that the city plans to do away with the “two-case rule,” which has been a source of frustration for parents.  It forced schools to shut down for 10 days if two positive COVID-19 cases were detected anywhere in the school. He did not issue a plan for replacing it, but said more information would be released in the coming days.

Low transmission rates within schools have been seen on the national level too, which is why, in part, the C.D.C moved to relax its recommendation for the distance students should remain apart. 

“C.D.C is committed to leading with science and updating our guidance as new evidence emerges,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky in a statement. “Safe in-person instruction gives our kids access to critical social and mental health services that prepare them for the future, in addition to the education they need to succeed.” 

Still, expanding the number of kids learning in the South Bronx and other city public schools is a massive undertaking. 

“It requires a lot of facility work, it requires a lot of work around transportation but it also requires work on the part of schools to make sure they are programing students in ways that make sense and maximize that amount of time they are in front of teachers,” Ramos explained. 

These efforts will continue well into the spring and summer as educators and city officials address learning loss and prep students emotionally and academically for the next school year. Ramos said the Department of Education plans to use summer and spring to assess what the learning loss has been for every student, as everyone has been “impacted because of the way education has been delivered over the past year” as well as the trauma of living through the Coronavirus pandemic.  

We now have more students in classrooms than any city. It’s something that has been wonderful to see, that despite it all, our kids are so happy to be back in school,” de Blasio said Monday morning. “Parents want them back in school, educators and staff have done a remarkable job making it work.”