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How is New York City Going to Safely Open Its Many Overcrowded Schools, Like Mine?


may adv placement

Mayor de Blasio has major school decisions to make (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


We’re looking at a possible school re-opening this September. I can’t wait to go back. Remote learning is better than nothing, but it’s no substitute for a live classroom. In a live classroom, I can see what students are doing. I can check their work in real time and quickly offer tips for improvement. I can urge students away from sleeping or fiddling with electronic devices.

Now I’m reduced to looking at a bunch of avatars. Who knows what the kids are doing behind them? Not me, at least. I’ve become the teacher who just sits at the desk and never ventures out to see what’s going on. In fairness, my students are in their homes and what goes on in them is none of my business. While I’ve been doing presentations lately to encourage them to come out from behind the avatars, they could have many reasons not to reveal themselves.

Of course, like my colleagues, I do the best I can. As much as I want to get back to my real job, I’m quite concerned about what a return will look like. Lots of schools are overcrowded, though not all of them quite as badly as ours.

As the most requested school in the city, Francis Lewis High School in Queens has become a victim of our own success. Mayor Bloomberg’s Department of Education overloaded us to 4,600 students, but made an agreement with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) to reduce enrollment. We were down to almost 4,000 students when Mayor de Blasio broke the agreement and loaded us right back up again.

We’re the largest school in Queens. As far as I know, at well over 200% capacity, we’re the most overcrowded school in the city. Assuming there’s no COVID-19 vaccine by September, I’m quite concerned about what returning will look like. Even if we make two end-to-end schedules, or have half the student body come in every other day, we’ll still have a building, conservatively, at roughly 105% capacity.

Given that, how would we achieve anything resembling social distancing? Could we stagger hall passing so that only half the students are out at a time? Could we even get thousands of teenagers to respect social distancing?

It’s really hard to say. We’re at the mercy of the Mayor and New York City Department of Education, not known for thorough consideration of pressing issues. For example, we’ve long known that classes of 34 students are less than optimal for student learning. This notwithstanding, during contract negotiations one of Mayor de Blasio’s hired hands told me the city had no interest in lowering class sizes. And now the question has even more urgency: How are we going to keep students safe if we continue to pack them in like sardines? 

The UFT has made health and safety of students and staff a prime consideration for school reopenings moving forward. I’m grateful to be in a union that can stand up to management. This is particularly relevant  when said management saw fit to keep overcrowded schools open even as Broadway curtains were closed. I will never, ever understand why people with $800 Hamilton tickets were too fragile to go out while 1.1 million students and the many tens of thousands of staff who serve them were all crushed and pushed and shoved and mushed on subways and buses and in the halls of overcrowded buildings.

Dozens of my brother and sister unionists are now dead. Many more are, or have been, quite sick. Who can even conjecture how many of us are walking around asymptomatic and infecting others? No one can dispute that dumping us all back into a hugely overcrowded building will cause even more sickness and death. 

We now know that overcrowding and huge class sizes are not only learning issues, but health issues as well. For the sake of our children, for the sake of our families, and yes for the sake of teachers and other staff, we need to stop acting like overcrowding is acceptable treatment for New York City’s children. We need a real reopening plan to help real students. Their safety is paramount. 

If Mayor de Blasio wishes to salvage what reputation he has left after closing the schools too late, it behooves him to deal with this head on. If we can find space when Amazon needs it, we can find it for our students, too.

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Arthur Goldstein is an ESL teacher and UFT chapter leader at Francis Lewis High School. He serves on the UFT Executive Board and blogs at nyceducator.com. On Twitter @TeacherArthurG.

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