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Middle School Reopening: Take Two

by Tigerlily Theo Hopson

Eighth grade students in history class during October 2020. Photo taken by Amber Joseph.

On February 8th, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City’s public middle schools would reopen on the Thursday following mid-winter break. This means on February 25th the 62,000 middle school students who opted for in-person learning will return to their school buildings.

East Side Community School will open its doors the following week, on Monday, March 1st, to 44 percent of the middle school student body.

Mayor de Blasio’s announcement shook up East Side who, like schools all over the city, had not been informed beforehand of this decision. Before scheduling and grouping (blocking) classes for the next semester, Principal Mark Federman had reached out to different levels of the Department of Education, including his superintendent, many times to ask if it was likely schools would reopen soon. Principal Federman was told students would not learn in-person until April, so all classes were blocked under the assumption that classes would stay online.

One week after the start of the second semester, Mayor de Blasio informed schools and the public that middle schools would in fact reopen at the end of February, sending teachers and administrators back to the drawing board. Principal Federman said that was his and teachers’ “biggest frustration.” He explained that to re-block classes that had already been carefully organized was “so much work.”

“It leaves us, schools, not ready to prepare with answers,” Federman added. “Ideally I would want us to be part of the conversation, but at least let us know in advance.”

Giselle George, East Side eighth grade math teacher, echoed Federman’s sentiment and described that there often seems to be a “disconnect” between the DOE and New York City public schools.

Erica Fontana, East Side sixth grade English teacher, agreed, “It’s been extremely disrespectful that teachers are the last to know. That we find out when our children find out.” She added that Principal Federman has been “wonderful,” and does a better job with transparency than the DOE.

Yet, despite teachers and administrators once again being left in the lurch by the DOE and Mayor de Blasio, East Side is doing what it can to make sure the middle school reopening is safe.

Federman expressed that he feels satisfied by the resources and protocols in the building— such as masks, hand sanitizer, the six feet rule, fans in the window for ventilation, and air purifiers— and believes it will be a safe learning environment. Students also have to get tested before they start school in the building, and East Side participates in the DOE testing which every week tests 20 to 35 percent of school occupants.

Additionally, vaccinations now can protect the more susceptible people in the building: educators. As of Tuesday, February 23rd, approximately 75 to 85 percent of East Side staff have been vaccinated. Federman pointed out though that if the mayor and DOE had given more notice for reopening, middle school teachers could have been prioritized.

Fontana has recently received her first vaccination and now feels better about teaching in the school building. The fact that adults are receiving vaccinations “makes me feel much more secure.”

Although middle schools are set to reopen, that doesn’t mean they will stay open. The DOE guidelines include that if a school has two COVID-19 cases, depending on how the cases are linked, either individual classrooms or the full school building has to close. This guideline helps to maintain safety while in-person, but can throw a wrench in students’ flow of learning. George voiced, “That inconsistency is not easy. It is not easy teacher-wise, and it is definitely not easy kid-wise.”

Although Federman feels comfortable about safety in the building, more people going to school means more people on public transportation and more chances of students bringing COVID-19 back to their communities. Between September 2020 and February 19th 2021, there have been 15,614 confirmed student and staff COVID-19 cases. These thousands of educators and classmates could have affected thousands more as they touched subway poles, bought bagels or coffee at delis, and interacted with families and friends.

New York City public schools were closed by Mayor de Blasio in November because the average test positivity rate had reached 3 percent. Now, the positivity rate is a little above 8 percent, yet the mayor is still pushing forward reopening.

A recent article by the New York Times explored the racial disparity between students who chose remote versus blended learning. Many people of color feel mistrust, deeply rooted in generations of discrimination and oppression by the New York City school system, of their public school districts. Additionally, communities of color have been hit disproportionately to white communities, and thus are more weary to send their children to school. In New York City as of December 2020, 12,000 more white children returned to school than Black children.

Fontana wonders how class and race plays into who is coming back to learn in-person. She feels it is important to consider if the majority of kids entering the building are affluent or white. “I want to make sure we are not furthering a disparity that already exists, and catering to families who may feel more carefree because they are not a population who are high risk,” she said.

It has recently been reported in National Geographic that around the age of puberty the risk of getting and transmitting COVID-19 increases. This means that the middle schoolers the city is sending back to school have a higher chance of catching and spreading the virus. With this all in consideration, many educators question if it is safe for schools to once again open their classrooms.

“Safe, I don’t know,” George admitted when asked if she felt school buildings were safe to reopen. “But, is it necessary to be in school for some students? I say yes.” She believes that despite the potential danger of middle schools once again opening, in-person learning is the best option for students who are struggling at home.

Carmen Jansons, seventh grade student, was “really excited” when she first heard middle school students would be returning to the building. “I had missed being in-person with all of my friends and getting more school time and having fun at school.”

For many like Jansons, the reopening of middle schools was welcome news. Months of online classes can be daunting, especially for younger students. For those struggling with mental health, tough family situations, learning disabilities, or babysitting obligations re-entering school could allow these students some joy and a pathway to thriving, or at least surviving, academically.

Fontana thinks that the main benefit of reopening is “that kids get out of their houses.” She has kept her own kids at school for that very reason. “I’ve kept them in school because being at home is horrible,” she said.

As for the reopening of high schools, Mayor de Blasio announced on February 8th that although there is no plan for that yet, “I want to get our high school kids back during the course of the current school year.”

Principal Federman longs for high schoolers to be allowed into the building, especially when classrooms open for middle schoolers. Although this is not yet a possibility, East Side on March 1st is welcoming high school students who have internet connection troubles or learning disabilities into the building to get the support they need. Federman said there is a possibility all in-person high schoolers may be able to return after spring break.

As March approaches and empty hallways fill up after more than three months, East Side will once again be put to the test. For some, this will be a time of challenge and fear, while for others it will be a cherished time of returning to a routine outside of the four walls of their home.

George explains that she is looking forward to the socialization aspect of coming back into the building. “I get to see my coworkers in person. I get to be in the building. I get to get out of this monotonous world of bedroom, shower, living room for work, and doing it all over again every day.” She gives out a laugh. “I miss traffic! When would I ever say I miss my 5:00 Manhattan bridge traffic?”

New York City middle school reopening is another hurdle to jump through, but also one step closer to normalcy.

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