New York Magazine

What Will the First Day of School Look Like?

the NYC Department of Education, as part of its planning for school reopening in the fall, asked every principal in the system to measure their buildings. Armed with floor plans and laser pointers, the principals visited each classroom, noted which ones had windows, and figured out if any other spaces could be converted into classrooms. Then, after dividing the total space by the number of students, they were expected to come up with a reopening plan that would meet social-distancing guidelines—all in less than a month.

To Medi Ford, a high-school teacher in Brooklyn, this seemed crazy. Her principal was smart, creative, and a former science teacher, but she was not a public-health specialist or an epidemiologist. Ford had been in the public-school system long enough to know that there were many principals who would not be up to the challenge. “The DOE just said, ‘Good luck to your school. I hope you figure it out,’” Ford told me. “To me, that’s a recipe for chaos.”

Ford’s school is located on the top floors of a former torpedo factory near the Dumbo waterfront. After her principal completed the mandated walk-through, Ford visited the school with her own tape measure. She had been in the building only once since March, when the city’s schools had shut down in a whirl of panic and confusion, and she found the experience eerie. She was required to get permission to enter two days in advance and to sign in at the door with a school-safety officer.

Inside, the school was dark and empty. Ford walked through the halls and found that they were less than eight feet wide. The hallways had always belonged to the students: It was where they could escape the confines of the classroom. She took a video of the sink in the hallway that had been out of commission ever since lead was discovered in the water. Fearing cockroaches, she decided to skip the bathrooms and the gym. Entering her classroom, she found it almost exactly as she had left it months ago, a pre-pandemic time capsule. Now, in the era of social distancing, she realized it was far too small for her 20 students. Measuring the tables at which her kids once sat, working in groups, Ford found that they were less than six feet long, meaning they could now accommodate only one student at a time.

“It was sad,” she says. It was sad to see her classroom, set up for lively group discussions, rendered unusable. It was sad to imagine her students having to cling to the edges of the hallway as they pass one another. But Ford was also angry. A lot of time had passed since March, and almost nothing had been done to prepare the school to reopen. It seemed unthinkable that it could now be done in time.

In late June, while public-school students across the city were attending their graduation or “step-up”ceremonies over Zoom,

AS SCHOOLS STRUGGLE to reopen under conditions of a still-festering pandemic, New York City faces a cruel paradox. Because the virus came here early and did unspeakable damage, and because the city endured a three-month lockdown, New York is now, from a coronavirus perspective, one of the safest urban school districts in the United States. It is therefore theoretically one of the easiest to reopen. But for the very same reasons, it is the hardest school district to reopen. Its employees have seen what the virus can do to entire communities. Its finances have been decimated. Many teachers, like the families of their students, have fled the city for safer ground.

Worst of all, the people charged with preparing the most ambitious school reopening in the country are angry at one another, working at cross-purposes, and full of distrust. Teachers feel they are

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