Alexa Sorden, an elementary school principal in the Bronx, has been pacing through the empty hallways of her school, trying to figure out how to make the most consequential school reopening effort in the country actually work.
Along with about 1,700 other school principals in New York City, Ms. Sorden has spent the summer racing to complete a dizzying set of tasks: calculating how many students she can safely allow in her building while adhering to social distancing; creating a curriculum and schedule to accommodate children in-person and online; and keeping a steady line of communication with nervous staff and traumatized parents.
Her efforts will help to determine whether the nation’s largest school district can reopen this fall. New York City, where the virus is currently under control, is the only major school district in the U.S. still planning to welcome children into classrooms part time this fall.
By trying to execute the high-stakes reopening plan, New York City’s principals have been quietly shaping what pandemic-era schooling could look like, not just for the city’s 1.1 million students but for children nationwide. New York’s reopening plans are being closely watched by politicians and school superintendents around the country.
Now, with just a month left until the city’s schools are scheduled to reopen, some principals have begun raising alarms about the system’s readiness. Though they are typically wary of wading into politics, a large group of principals made an exception this week, calling on the mayor to delay in-person instruction by a few weeks and then phase students back into buildings throughout the fall.
Their resistance could have significant consequences for New York City’s school reopening proposal; the city’s powerful teachers’ union has already said it does not believe it is currently safe to reopen schools.
The principals’ union sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday on behalf of school leaders, urging the mayor to “heed their dire warnings” about opening too soon.
Ms. Sorden, who founded and now leads Concourse Village Elementary School, said she does not believe her school will be ready to welcome children on the planned first day of school.
“We know that Sept. 10 is not even close to realistic,” she said.
Ms. Sorden’s concerns signal how difficult it will be to bring children back into classrooms even in places where the virus is contained.
“I am afraid. I am nervous,” she said on a recent weekday morning, after she plucked a few Lysol wipes and disinfected the arms of every chair in her office. “I wish I had all the answers,” she added. “This is a new thing for me, operating without having every answer.”
Ms. Sorden is sorting through the weightiest questions she has ever encountered in her two decades as an educator.
How can she create two complementary versions of school — one online, one in-person — that both prevent her mostly low-income, Black and Latino students from falling further behind academically, and keep those children and their families safe? Ms. Sorden estimates that about 60 percent of the school’s roughly 330 families will opt for full-time remote learning, based on survey results and conversations with parents.
It is easy to get overwhelmed, so Ms. Sorden tries to quiet her mind with daily morning meditation and writing in her journal. She also confides in her husband after they have put their three children — two of whom are students at her school — to bed. She monitors her heart rate frequently on her Apple Watch.
On mornings when it isn’t raining, Ms. Sorden ties on her sneakers and walks a mile and a half from her home in Washington Heights to Concourse Village Elementary in the South Bronx.
When she arrives at her school building one morning, Ms. Sorden uses a ruler to measure six feet of distance between every desk and chair. She stands in each corner of a classroom that once held 30 students and will now accommodate nine, and wonders if she can position each child so that they are breathing in different directions.
So far, that has been the easy part.
Ms. Sorden’s teachers have asked her what to do if children in pre-K switch masks, and whether it is safer for them to wear masks, face shields, or both. They do not know if it will be safe to take off their masks to eat lunch.
A handful of teachers have left the school over the last few weeks — either because they left the city altogether, were concerned about returning to classrooms, or wanted to work closer to home. Some teachers have asked whether they should write their wills.
Ms. Sorden barely has time to think about who will watch her own children on the days when she’s at school, but they are learning from home.
Ms. Sorden’s determination to make schools safe, and her anguish over how difficult that is proving to be, is shared by school leaders throughout New York.
Moses Ojeda is the principal of Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School in Jamaica, Queens, which prepares students for careers as electricians, medical assistants and automotive technicians. Mr. Ojeda is spending his days puzzling through the extraordinary challenge of how to provide hands-on instruction online.
“I don’t want to see gaps in our work force,” he said.
José Jiménez, the principal of Public School 290 in Ridgewood, Queens, has been fielding questions from parents about safety for weeks: What kinds of air filters will be installed? Who will be completing the nightly deep cleans? Who will be checking temperatures, and how often?
When he talks to parents and teachers, Mr. Jimenez said, “I have to preface everything with, ‘Whatever I say now, it could change tomorrow.’” Roughly 25 percent of his families have already opted for all-remote learning, he said.
And Leander Windley, the leader of Intermediate School 318 in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, is wrestling with how to welcome his rising sixth graders into a school they have likely never stepped foot in. He has been holding virtual meetings in the evenings with their parents, who come from about 20 different elementary schools.
He is preparing his guidance counselor and social worker to brace for what he believes will be a uniquely traumatized group of students who will need more support than ever before, ideally delivered in-person.
But he is worried about the city’s ability to tie up all the safety concerns by September. “I’m more of a realist than an optimist,” he said.
All four principals’ schools are in largely low-income neighborhoods where most parents have had little choice but to physically return to work, and would likely have to seek child care options outside the home if classrooms do not reopen.
The principals all said they were worried both about how their most vulnerable students would fare without at least some in-person instruction, and about how to keep their families safe.
“School, for some of our neediest children, is everything,” Ms. Sorden said. “It’s the only place where they know what to expect.”
And yet: many of Ms. Sorden’s students live with their grandparents or relatives with pre-existing conditions. And it was impossible for her not to see safety minefields everywhere she looked as she surveyed the building.
Some staircases were likely too cramped to accommodate more than a few students at a time. Ms. Sorden pointed out that her schoolyard was hidden under construction scaffolding, rendering outdoor learning all but impossible. And she wondered how many students would be able to line up in a hallway that is only six feet wide.
But Ms. Sorden found a brief respite from her worries when she turned a corner and ran into Lissette Rosario, a kindergarten teacher who had been working for hours on assembling a fresh bulletin board, complete with pictures of dinosaurs.
Ms. Sorden did not know whether students would ever see the board in person. But for a moment, it gave her joy to think about children walking through the hallways sometime soon.
“When they’re here we want them to know that every detail matters, and that they’re safe and that we love them,” she said. “And the virus is definitely interfering with what we love.”
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