Education

Proposal would limit number of students allowed in NYC classrooms

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City council members and the teachers union want New York City to further limit the number of students allowed in a classroom by amending the city’s administrative code.

The change could address the dual concerns of class sizes and public health, as COVID threatens to disrupt a third consecutive school year.

City Council education committee chair Mark Treyger, finance committee chair Danny Dromm, and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew are expected to unveil the proposed legislation at a press conference Thursday morning in front of City Hall. Dromm and the union recently pushed to reduce class sizes across the city as part of this year’s budget. Ultimately, they got an $18 million pilot program to hire more teachers at 72 schools.

Their proposed legislation calls for increasing the amount of space required per student, growing from 20 square feet to 35 square feet in classrooms serving first through 12th grades. (That is the current standard for younger students and those with mobility disabilities.) The changes would be phased in over time, with 33% of schools meeting the new standard by 2022-23 and 66% by 2023-24. Full compliance would be reached by September 2024 under the proposed legislation.

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Parents and teachers, however, have immediate concerns over whether classrooms will be safe next school year, which starts Sept. 13. The delta variant is spreading rapidly, vaccinations among youth remain low, and many children are still ineligible for the shots.

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended everyone inside of schools wear masks this fall, regardless of vaccination status. But federal guidance also says that schools can relax social distancing if the need for space gets in the way of ensuring students can attend school in person. New York City’s education department had previously estimated that about 10% of schools do not have room to follow social distancing while accommodating all students.

In addition to taking time, changing the building code is also likely to be expensive as it could mean building new school seats and hiring more teachers. The education department’s most recent capital plan already calls for the addition of 57,000 new seats — but projecting enrollment can be difficult, especially as the pandemic has led many families to leave the city. Additionally, finding land suitable for schools can be a years-long endeavor.

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