About four months after 1.1 million New York City children were forced into online learning, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Wednesday that public schools would still not fully reopen in September, saying that classroom attendance would instead be limited to only one to three days a week in an effort to continue to curb the coronavirus outbreak.
The mayor’s release of his plan for the system, by far the nation’s largest, capped weeks of intense debate among elected officials, educators and public health experts over how to bring children back safely to 1,800 public schools.
The decision to opt for only a partial reopening, which is most likely the only way to accommodate students in school buildings while maintaining social distancing, may hinder hundreds of thousands of parents from returning to their pre-pandemic work lives, undermining the recovery of the sputtering local economy.
Still, the staggered schedules in New York City schools for September reflect a growing trend among school systems, universities and colleges around the country, which are all trying to find ways of balancing the urgent need to bring students back to classrooms and campuses while also reducing density to prevent the spread of the virus.
“Everyone is looking to the public school system to indicate the bigger direction of New York City,” Mr. de Blasio said Wednesday.
Under the mayor’s plan, there will probably be no more than a dozen people in a classroom at a time, including teachers and aides, a stark change from typical class size in New York City schools, which can hover around 30 children.
Educators widely consider online learning to be a poor substitute for the classroom, especially for younger children and those with special needs. The shift has also created enormous challenges for parents who have struggled helping their children learn even as they have had to maintain jobs from home or, if they are essential workers, had to scramble for child care.
Still, like New York City’s, many school districts around the country are planning on not reopening fully, and instead will use a mix of in-person and remote learning indefinitely.
President Trump threatened on Wednesday to cut off federal funding to school districts that do not reopen in person this fall. On Tuesday he said that the social, psychological and educational costs of keeping children at home would be worse than the virus itself. Education policy is largely controlled by state and local officials, so Mr. Trump does not have authority over whether systems reopen.
The details of reopening will vary widely between districts depending on the virus’ spread, which is why a return to school may look very different in New York, where transmission is currently low, than in Phoenix, where cases are increasing.
In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has authority over when schools across the state, including in New York City, can reopen. Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio have long feuded over schools, and Mr. Cuomo could still halt the mayor’s timeline for reopening.
The governor did not contradict Mr. de Blasio on Wednesday. Instead, he reiterated that he has the ultimate decision about whether to reopen schools at all, and that his office will make those decisions in the first week of August. The governor said he expected some parents to decide whether to send their children back to school in person the night before reopening.
Under Mr. de Blasio’s plan, school principals will spend July determining which of three staggered schedule options to adopt. That decision will depend on how many students and staff can fit into school buildings while social distancing, and on how many families want their children to return to school in the first place.
School leaders will let parents know in August which days children can report to school, and which days they will learn remotely.
The city’s models are based on current federal guidelines that recommend six feet of distance between students.
After Mr. Trump said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s school reopening guidelines were too onerous, Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday that the C.D.C. would issue updated guidelines on schools next week. If the guidance is more relaxed, it could mean that New York and other districts across the country may be able to accommodate more children in person come fall — if districts believe the new recommendations are safe.
Officials in Massachusetts, for example, have already said schools could reopen there with at least three feet of distance between children.
Schools that can accommodate at least half of the student body with distancing guidelines will be able to educate children in person two or three days every week, while schools that can fit only about a third of students will have children attend one or two days a week.
A relatively small number of students with special needs in schools that already had very small class sizes could return for alternating full weeks or even full-time.
Though school is scheduled to begin in early September, the options announced Wednesday could still change significantly.
After New York become the national epicenter of the pandemic this spring, the city flattened the curve significantly, but a significant drop — or spike — could alter how schools reopen.
City Hall does not yet know precisely how many parents are planning to keep their children home from school but will begin formally asking families next week. If the number of students who opt for full-time remote learning turns out to be much higher or lower than anticipated, the models could change again. Like many urban school districts, New York has moved away from neighborhood high schools to schools that admit students from all over the city — many of whom have long trips on public transportation.
Reopening public schools, even in a limited capacity, is the biggest and most complex obstacle on New York’s long path to a full reopening.
The vast majority of the city’s public school students are low-income, and many of their parents and caretakers are essential workers who had little choice but to report to work even at the height of the pandemic.
A Department of Education survey of about 400,000 parents found that about 75 percent of families are tentatively willing to send their children back to school.
Perhaps the biggest unanswered question of the reopening effort is how working families will find child care for the days when their children cannot be physically present in school. Mr. de Blasio said the city would look to maximize classroom space wherever it can, but acknowledged, “this is something we’re going to be building as we go along.”
New York is experiencing its worst financial disaster since the 1970s, and getting as many people back to work as possible is an urgent priority for Mr. de Blasio’s administration.
Finding ways to plug the enormous gaps in child care is sure to be a citywide effort that does not rely solely on the Department of Education, since school buildings will be fully occupied by September.
The city will have to find other public and private space to accommodate thousands of children a day. The city Board of Health recently authorized the reopening of child care centers, but those centers have only a tiny fraction of the capacity the city will need come September.
Anand Raghunath, a parent of two children who attend school in East Harlem, spent Wednesday morning frantically plotting out child care options for the fall.
After he heard the mayor’s announcement, Mr. Raghunath said he turned to his wife, who works in a hospital, and asked, “What are we going to do?”
He said the proposal, with students attending school physically for a range of one to three days a week, does not allow his family to do much specific planning. For now, Mr. Raghunath’s strategy is to have his mother-in-law fly in from California and watch the children while he and his wife work.
“We’re all at a standstill here,” he said.
Restarting school even a few days a week presents myriad logistical hurdles.
Many of the city’s school buildings are over a century old, with poor air ventilation and cramped classrooms and hallways. Drastic budget cuts have left many schools with less money to hire teachers and staff — all while the city estimates that about one in five current teachers will receive medical exemptions to work remotely.
Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza said Wednesday that the city would try to bring as many Department of Education employees with teaching certificates into classrooms as possible.
Though union leaders have raised alarms about whether schools will have enough personal protective gear and nurses to safely reopen, the city has said it will deep clean schools each night and have sanitizer and disinfectant in all classrooms and common spaces. Some teachers have said they did not have enough resources to keep schools clean when the virus was spreading in March.
“We can make up learning for students,” Mr. Carranza said. “We cannot bring a student back who is infected and passes away.” All teachers and students will be expected to wear masks throughout the school day come fall.
Mr. de Blasio on Wednesday laid out three schedules for principals to consider.
The most generous model would apply to schools that can accommodate at least half of their students while adhering to social distancing. In that scenario, two cohorts of students would cycle in and out on alternating days that remain consistent throughout the semester.
For example, one group might attend school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the second group in classes on Wednesdays and Fridays, while Mondays alternate weekly between the two groups.
More crowded schools will have three groups of students who attend school just once or twice a week. Those students will all have five days of in person instruction every three weeks, but some middle and high school students might not be in school on any consistent day week to week.
Mr. Cuomo will have some oversight regarding how New York’s hundreds of private, parochial and charter schools plan to reopen this fall. There are many charter schools that share buildings with district schools and will likely have to follow the same basic staggering plans, though charters in private spaces could have more flexibility.
Private schools that already had smaller class sizes and spacious buildings may be able to accommodate more children in person than most public schools.