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Crowded New York City schools are pulling out all the stops to keep 3 feet of space between students when full in-person classes in just over a week.
At Francis Lewis High School in Queens, long one of the city’s most overcrowded as student enrollment hovers at roughly 200% of the building’s capacity, administrators have devised a complex plan to extend the school day and reduce the density of students.
Classes will begin for some students as early as 7:15 a.m., nearly an hour earlier than the school used to open, and will end close to 5 p.m., about an hour later than in past years. The school day will consist of 14 class periods instead of 10, and students will weave in and out of the building in roughly six separate, overlapping shifts, according to Principal David Marmor.
The plan means that only about two-thirds of the school’s 4,500 students will be in the building at any given time, Marmor said — making it possible, at least in theory, for students to stay 3 feet apart during classes, lunch and free periods, he said.
“By spreading the day out longer and having more periods, that gave us hundreds and hundreds of additional class spaces in our building,” Marmor said.
Administrators and educators at packed schools across the city are confronting the daunting task of ensuring physical distance between kids and teachers while preparing to welcome back their full roster of students for the first time since March 2020.
City Education Department officials say they are “toeing the line” of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that suggests striving for 3 feet of distance for students wherever possible, while not making it a requirement to fully restart in-person classes — especially if other safety measures like masking and widespread vaccination are in place.
Marmor said that “as a school leader, I had to start with, ’Is it possible?’ Once we put our minds to it, and we got collaboration, once we got all of that, we decided that it was possible. So why would we not meet the highest, most rigorous standard?”
City officials identified as far back as June a group of roughly 200 overcrowded schools that would have trouble complying with the distancing recommendations. Some 76 of those schools — the most overcrowded — were labeled “Tier 1,” while an additional 116 were designated as slightly less challenging.
Education Department officials now say “nearly every one of our overutilized schools have plans in place to provide 3-feet physical distancing in classrooms.”
Kevin Moran, chief operating officer of school operations, said the solutions have “focused on staffing, that looked at spacing, that looked at alternate spaces within a building; we also looked at alternate programs.”
Education Department officials said they’ve helped 10 schools find auxiliary space, including temporarily leasing a vacant former Catholic school building near Park East High School in East Harlem. An estimated 120 students will use the new space, officials said.
Some schools acknowledge that despite their best efforts and scheduling contortions, 3 feet of space won’t be possible at all times.
Jonathan Halabi, a math teacher and scheduler at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College, one of the schools identified by the Education Department as overcrowded, said although most classes will be able to meet the distancing rules, “we’re going to have classes that are bigger than the 3-foot guidelines.”
As the school’s programmer, Halabi said, he’s slotted the biggest classes for the largest rooms and tried to reduce crowding in the hallways by having students change rooms less frequently, but there are some large classes stuck in too small rooms.
And even where the scheduling or logistical arrangements seem to allow 3 feet of spacing, the changes come with costs.
Arthur Goldstein, a longtime teacher and union chapter leader at Francis Lewis, said Marmor’s plan to extend the schedule is “thoughtful” and that the “principal did the best he could under the circumstances.”
But he said “when you teach at 7:15 some kids just aren’t going to make it” to class. Marmor said he’s gotten little negative feedback from students or families about the plan, and has managed to schedule varsity athletes for an earlier shift so they can practice in the afternoons.
Matt Baker, a math teacher at the Brooklyn Latin School, said his school has been shifting furniture to ensure distancing in class. But that also means disrupting the traditional four-student tables his school has relied on to encourage group work — which then means devising new approaches to classroom instruction.
“We have a lot of really smart, dedicated teachers trying to make this work,” he said, “and it’s just really tough.”