Closing the COVID-19 distance — in schools, at least


Few education landscapes have been subject to changes over the course of the coronavirus pandemic as much as the city’s public elementary schools.

First, their first day of school was pushed twice from Sept. 10 to Sept. 21, and then again to Sept. 29. Then, along with all of the other public schools in the city, their buildings shuttered again just two months later.

But they also were on the receiving end of some of the city’s more positive changes. Their school buildings were among the first to reopen for in-person learning in December, along with preschools and specialized District 75 schools. They also were allowed to offer a select number of students onto five days a week — a program Mayor Bill de Blasio hopes will be in effect for all schools by next fall.

More might be able to come back sooner — not just because of the new hybrid learning opt-in window opening up, but because the experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have loosened one major restriction among elementary school students: how far apart they need to be.

The CDC moved away from the six feet of physical distance rule last month as part of its coronavirus protocols, saying three feet was all that’s needed among young children in the classroom. However, even with that change, the CDC warns six feet should still be maintained whenever possible.

The city has prioritized in-person learning for its younger students, as well as its students with higher learning needs. And it seems this new guidance will allow more students to come into the building for in-person learning — whether on a part-time basis, or for the full five days of the school week.

It’s welcome news for Anne Kirrane, principal at P.S. 81 Robert J. Christen.

“Schools are meant to have children in them,” Kirrane said. “So we’re excited to have our children back at school.”

But the new CDC guidance still leaves many questions unanswered. To address the combined influence of the in-person learning opt-in window and the new CDC guidance, administrators at P.S. 24 Spuyten Duyvil hosted a town hall to answer questions and address concerns about both subjects.

Principal Steven Schwartz admitted he didn’t have all those answers, but he promised to keep parents in the loop once he did.

“I just want to reiterate that this is what might happen,” Schwartz said. “Everything discussed tonight is based on the potential guidance we’ll receive from the department of education.”

Although the “three feet” guidance will be in effect for the majority of the time, Schwartz noted there were still some instances where six feet of distance will still be the rule of thumb. That will mainly be when wearing a mask isn’t possible — such as during lunch time or mask breaks — or when playing certain instruments in music class.

Schwartz was still uncertain about just how many more students would be allowed to come into the building under the new guidelines, as he’d yet to receive exact numbers. However, he expected the number would hover around double the current figure.

Kirrane, however, did her own homework, taking into account how much square feet each classroom had, and adjusting accordingly with the new three-foot guidelines.

“We do have the dimensions of each room,” Kirrane said. “We’ve already formed a committee to ensure that everything runs smoothly.”

The new guidance also will likely allow schools like P.S. 24 and P.S. 81 to welcome more students into the building on a full-time basis. But there are certain factors to consider when making such an offer. Schwartz noted the “first, second, third and fourth” criteria was space. If a classroom didn’t have the space to accommodate more students five days a week, then such an offer wouldn’t be made to students in that specific classroom.

But if the space was available, administrators would need to consult education department guidelines and school support teams as to which of their students could benefit most from a five-day-a-week in-person offer.

Further, Schwartz wants to ensure all of the students who are currently remote have the opportunity to learn in-person on a part-time basis if they want to before more five day in-person offers are made.

“Once the (opt-in) window is closed, the school will then re-evaluate additional opportunities for students to attend in-person learning five days a week,” Schwartz said. “It does not mean that we are going to be able to find opportunities for more students to come in five times a week. We are optimistic. But again, all of this is pending the department of education guidance that we have not yet received.”

There are still several unanswered questions about what the new CDC guidance will mean for the city’s public elementary schools. But both Schwartz and Kirrane knew it meant more kids would be in their buildings — and that’s what they want.

“If you’re currently receiving full-time in-person instruction, there’s no impact other than you may have more friends to engage with on a daily basis in the upcoming weeks,” Schwartz said. “And that’s always good.”