How New York City, Oakland and Indianapolis Are Planning to Reopen Schools

Jul 02, 2020

Call it “blended,” “hybrid” or “split.” Students, families and teachers are gearing up for a new school year that will feature a mixture of at-home and in-class education.

That was the message from the heads of school districts in New York City, Oakland and Indianapolis this week during a webinar where they shared a few snapshots of their evolving plans for the upcoming school year.

What’s more: Research underway at EdSurge and a collection of other research groups are seeing those trends across hundreds of other school districts throughout the U.S. At the same time, districts are cautiously exploring whether some changes might enable them to prioritize changes that they have wanted to enact—but had not found the support to prioritize.

“We cannot speak about going back to the ‘normal,’ because the ‘normal’ never served all of our students well,” declared Richard Carranza, chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education, which serves 1.1 million students across 1,800 schools. One example: Since March, “we haven’t evaluated teachers based on a punitive evaluation system. We have not expelled or suspended one student. We have had compassion for mastery learning and really aligned what we’re doing to what we expect students to master. And the world hasn’t come to an end. In fact, some students are thriving in that environment.”

Carranza, as well as Kyla Johnson-Trammell, superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, and Aleesia Johnson, superintendent of the Indianapolis Public Schools, emphasized that they are trying to build flexibility into their plans—largely because so many decisions key off of the state of public health. “Everyone wants to know, what’s the plan? We’re going to tell you how we’re planning for the plan,” Carranza said.

Here’s how their efforts are shaping up.

New York City

Carranza says he expects to see New York City schools reopen on September 10—but even that date is flexible: “It could be September 15 or 20,” depending on health trends. There will be rolling or phased starts. “Not everyone will start at once,” he said.

Just how many students will be present at any one time is still a work in progress, too: Carranza says calculations suggest that to ensure appropriate physical distancing and split schedules, New York City’s schools can accommodate approximately 41 percent of its full student population on any given day. But equally unclear is how many students will show up: In a survey of New York families that triggered about 400,000 responses, more than 40 percent of families said they wouldn’t feel comfortable sending students to school unless a vaccine is available. (That percentage is comparable to the average sentiment of parents throughout the U.S. According to this recent poll commissioned by the American Enterprise Institute, almost 4 in 10 parents say they would not send their children back to school until a vaccine is available.)

And Carranza, along with the other superintendents, underscored the important role that schools are playing in delivering food. New York schools have served up 33 million meals since March “and that demand is growing every single day,” he said.

Oakland

Feeding students and families has been top of mind for Oakland superintendent Johnson-Trammell, too. Oakland has delivered 2.3 million meals since March and has recently doubled its food distribution centers to 24. “We’ve got to make sure there are no breaks in food distribution,” said Johnson-Trammell. “We’re seeing that food insecurity growing. It is obviously a challenge to learn when you are hungry.”

Johnson-Trammell says that Oakland’s 83 schools are slated to open up on August 10 with a “hybrid” model. She’s been relying on a working group that includes teachers, principals, the central office staff and labor union representatives, working on issues that include instruction and wellness. She also gave a shout out to one Oakland high school teacher who is also a trained pediatrician. (“I still don’t know how she does it all!”) who has been working closely with the district to decipher how the latest research applies to district schools.

Much like New York City, Oakland has surveyed families, and similarly is finding many prefer a distance learning model for now, even though some 25,000 of the district’s 49,000 students still lack access to computing devices or to the internet. Donations, notably a $10 million gift by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, are closing that divide.

What’s more, the district is hearing families suggest that schools “plan for an entire week at home” at a time. “We’re working through different interactions,” Johnson-Trammell said. “We’ve moved away from an AM-PM schedule,” and are instead evaluating how five-day rotation models might work. Much of this evaluation is being done by principals and teachers—”the folks closest to the classroom,” she added. And there will be likely different models for elementary, middle and high school. “We will share with families in a couple of weeks and continue to get feedback,” Johnson-Trammell said.

Indianapolis

Aleesia Johnson, superintendent of the Indianapolis Public Schools, is using weekly video calls with the principals of her 70 schools as well as weekly video messages to the community to gear up for the district’s opening on August 3. “Districts really play key roles as community connectors and collaborators and we really stepped into that space,” she said.

Indianapolis schools partnered with local food banks, opened up their doors to provide child care for essential workers and partnered with media stations to broadcast lessons on television for students that lacked computing devices.

Essential to all the planning have been surveys of the community. Johnson says that surveys have already shown that about 30 percent of district families say that their students are living with someone who is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Similarly, about 30 percent “told us they would be more interested in a fully virtual option, even if schools reopen,” she added. “We have to double down on that virtual learning experience because we expect a good number of our students will be part of that structure” later this summer, she said.

Indianapolis is also assessing through surveys, how many students will likely use its buses when school reopens. (In the past the majority of students came to school by bus.) Estimating how many families will instead choose to drop off their students “is really important information that has implications for how we will enforce social distancing, how we will route our buses and how we provide transportation to the families that need it,” Johnson added. So she expects to continue the ongoing dialogue with the community as the next term approaches.

“There are three pandemics: viral, economic and racial strife, which thank goodness, we’re reckoning with,” Carranza said. “Now, it’s more important than ever, to take a social emotional, trauma-informed approach to reengaging with in-person learning.”

The full webinar, which was hosted by Salesforce, is available here.


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