Following a presentation by Superintendent Anibal Soler, the city schools' Board of Trustees approved a plan Monday night that could have full in-class learning for all students whose families want it starting Monday, April 19.
Families who want learning to remain 100-percent virtual will be able to continue online education for the remainder of the school year.
The hybrid model, where students split time between in-home virtual classrooms and on-campus classrooms, will be eliminated.
The decision to return to full-time learning is being driven by data and what state and national leaders are saying about the importance of in-class learning, Soler said.
"I feel, along with the board, that this is why it is time for us to take some significant steps to get us back to school the way it used to be," Soler said during the meeting.
Soler noted that the Centers for Disease Control has changed its guidance on classroom instruction, providing the option to keep students three feet apart instead of six feet. While this change makes it more realistic to get students back in classrooms, six feet is still ideal and where possible, the district will strive to keep students six feet apart, Soler said, or at least five feet, or at least four feet, going to only three feet apart where a greater distance is not feasible.
Previously, one of the issues with opening up the schools was transportation. Currently, students who are transported by bus must sit one to a bench seat. In the new plan, two students will be allowed to share a single bench seat so long as both are masked.
Students will sit on the bus according to a seating chart, so that if later a student does test positive for coronavirus school officials can identify students who were within six feet of the COVID-19-positive student. Such students will be asked to quarantine.
The buses will be disinfected between runs.
The state's Department of Health has not yet approved these guidelines, but Soler anticipates that the state will approve the changes. Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a Feb. 19 briefing said he believes schools should go back to in-class teaching where COVID-19 prevalence is low and that the change should be a local decision.
One factor in the district's favor is that at least 50 percent of the staff will be fully vaccinated by April 10. Soler believes the number of staff members vaccinated is actually higher but the district only has data for those individuals who accepted their vaccination through the district. Every staff member has been offered the vaccine.
Soler has already met with leaders of the teachers' and clerks' unions and both support a reopening plan as long as safety protocols are in place.
To prepare, support staff will start moving furniture in classrooms and cafeterias during spring break, March 29 to April 2.
From now until April 9, Soler will be holding virtual meetings with staff members to roll out the plan, answer questions, and address concerns.
"They may have ideas we haven't thought about," Soler said.
All cohorts will be in virtual classrooms on April 15-16 in order to give teachers a final two days of prep before starting in-classroom teaching.
"This will give us a full 10 weeks of in-person learning for 80 percent of the district," Soler said.
The potential barriers to carrying out and continuing the plan, Soler told the board, are: if the district receives a directive from the Department of Health; or receives a court order; or if there is a spike in community spread or some other sign of the infection rate going up in the community.
"Then we have to reset, go back to virtual learning for two weeks before resuming the hybrid model," Soler said. "We will continue to protect staff and students if we see a large number of cases."
The timeline allows two weeks between spring break and the resumption of classes. This means if increased social contact during spring break leads to a spike in cases, the district can reevaluate whether April 19 is the right time to go back to in-class learning.
But given all the evidence experts have gathered, Soler said, the district does need to get back to normal classroom instruction. It's better for the students academically, emotionally and socially. It will also be less stressful for teachers.
"Our teachers have been burning the candle at both ends," Soler said. "They have been working hard and managing two groups of students. I commend them on what they do but it's time to get them back to doing what they do best, which is teaching kids in front of them."