July 18, 2020
City principals are used to tackling thorny problems, but planning school reopenings during an pandemic may be the most challenging yet.
“You’re operating in an environment you’re not used to,” said Moses Ojeda, the principal of Thomas Edison High School in Jamaica, Queens.
“As a principal we’re used to getting directives from above… now we’re getting guidance… a lot of us are like what’s going to happen here? We want a little more.”
School principals will have an outsize role in the fraught school reopening debate currently raging across the city. Within the basic reopening framework laid out by the city, principals will have wide leeway to choose the scheduling arrangements that best suit their families and the physical constraints of their buildings.
But the flexibility also comes with opportunities for school leaders, who are scrambling to tailor their plans to the specific needs and concerns of staff, students and parents.
Ojeda’s school, for example, offers a number of hands-on career and technical education courses like automotive tech that need to be taught in-person to function. He’s working on a plan to prioritize limited in-person school time for those courses, while shifting other classes solely online.
Jeff Chetirko, the principal of the Urban Assembly New York Harbor school, which also runs a Career and Technical Education school, is exploring a similar idea, but says it’s tough to make any planning decisions without knowing exactly which of his teachers will be in the building. Teachers who are older than 65 or medically at-risk can apply to work only remotely next year, but principals won’t find out who was approved until later this summer.
“For me the biggest question mark is the staff leave application,” said Chetriko. “I need to know programming-wise.”
Principals also won’t learn how many families opt for remote-only learning until August — a number that will determine how they schedule the in-person students.
Some principals are working to orient their schedules around which students are faring worst in remote learning.
Alexa Sorden, the principal of Middle School 359 in the South Bronx, is hoping to allow students who are academically behind, had trouble accessing the internet, whose parents couldn’t supervise remote learning, or who are in the younger grades the option of three days of in-person learning each week.
It will be particularly important to supervise first-graders in the midst of the complicated and all-important process of learning to read, she said.
Of course, even the best-laid in-person learning plans depend on principals winning the trust of families and staff concerned about their own safety — a steep task in a city school system still reeling from the virus’s devastating death toll.
“I think they’re fearful of how we will be safe in the building. There’s others who take the subway, they haven’t been on a subway since March,” said Sorden, who said despite the concerns all of her staff plans to return.
Sorden has tried to give teachers frequent opportunities to express their fears. She reminds them that she can relate — she also takes the subway and has two young kids at the school.
“I felt the fear also....I went through the same emotions they did.”