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De Blasio: City schools can reopen safely using outdoor spaces

Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday that NYC schools must submit a plan by Friday to use schoolyards and other outdoor spaces for outdoor learning. Credit: NYC Mayor's Office

New York City schools can transform campus playgrounds, sidewalks and nearby parks and streets into classrooms when 1.1 million students return next month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday.

Public, private, charter and religious schools can participate in the outdoor learning plan designed to allow students to return safely amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the mayor said at a news conference.

“The disease does not spread the same outdoors, we have seen that over and over, so we want to give schools the option to do as much outdoors as they can,” de Blasio said. “Starting today, we empower our principals to determine the maximum amount they can do outdoors. It's up to them to figure out how to use schoolyards and anything on school property that is outdoors.”

De Blasio has faced fierce pressure from parents, teachers and principals to delay in-person education to give the city’s Department of Education more time to prepare buildings for classes during the coronavirus pandemic.

Union leaders for school administrators and teachers said Monday they remained concerned about the lack of funding and COVID-19 testing they believe are both necessary to carry out the mayor's plan safely.

De Blasio said costs associated with his plan are minimal.

Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union representing principals, acknowledged that outdoor learning could be helpful in reducing transmission of COVID-19, But he pointed out that de Blasio did not offer financial support or details for schools to accommodate outside classrooms. 

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"Though the idea of outdoor learning has real merit, the city's plan will not be implemented nearly as well as it could have been if the mayor had simply given principals the time and support they need," Cannizzaro said. "As a result, we reiterate our call for a delay on in-person learning so that we can implement a safe and successful learning plan for our students." 

The president of the United Federation of Teachers, Michael Mulgrew, said de Blasio's reopening plan "continues to fall short, particularly in terms of testing." 

Free testing will be available for all school staff, the mayor said in a news release later Monday. The news release did not mention whether students will have access to free testing.

The teacher's union has called for mandated testing for all staff and students 10 days before they enter their school buildings. The union is also calling for a coordinated testing program, rather than just offering testing.

Principals who submit plans for outdoor learning by Friday will receive responses no later than Sept. 4, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said. The submissions will be reviewed by an interagency working group that includes members of the NYPD, FDNY and city Departments of Transportation and Sanitation, as well as Parks and Recreation. The Education Department will work with school administrators to secure space on nearby streets and parks, Carranza added. But schools must provide barriers and staffing to close any street. 

Students are scheduled to return to New York City schools — the largest school system in the nation — Sept. 10.

Many principals have already begun identifying public spaces that can be converted into classrooms, Carranza said at Monday’s news conference. 

The outdoor learning program will prioritize the 27 New York communities hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, de Blasio said. 

The teacher's union has threatened to strike over the mayor's call to open schools, saying many campus buildings across the five boroughs lack proper ventilation, medical personnel and personal protective equipment. 

But de Blasio said Monday that his plan is the most rigorous in the world. He said all students and teachers will be required to wear masks.

“We’ve looked at what’s worked across the globe to create a plan for reopening schools that’s the absolute gold standard,” de Blasio said. “My message to parents and our school communities cannot be clearer: We are taking every possible precaution to bring our kids back safely.”

The mayor also announced Monday that the Yankees will team up with the city’s Test & Trace Corps to promote free COVID-19 testing access across the city. The first 4,000 New Yorkers who get tested at any Health and Hospitals testing site Tuesday will receive Yankees caps, T-shirts and other memorabilia.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone and several players — including Aaron Hicks, Masahiro Tanaka, Gio Urshela and Luke Voit — are featured in a new public service announcement promoting the “Core Four” steps to fighting the virus — hand-washing, mask-wearing, social distancing and staying home when sick. 

“Regardless of whether you’re a Yankees, Mets, or Red Sox fan, one thing is clear about New Yorkers: we look out for one another,” said de Blasio, a noted Boston fan. “Getting a test isn’t just about protecting yourself — it’s a civic duty to your fellow New Yorkers.”

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