MARCH 23, 2020 9:02 A.M.
Monday marks the beginning of a new era for New York City public schools, as the Department of Education officially begins the transition to e-learning for more than one million students, and opens "Regional Enrichment Centers" to care for the children of essential workers. "The largest school system in America is going to completely switch its instructional delivery method," Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said Friday. "That's unheard of and it's only possible because of the incredible educators that we have in our schools."
Since Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week the closing of all schools and programs until at least April 20th, educators have been scrambling to adapt lessons and coordinate with families so that school can continue while the city waits out the COVID-19 virus largely from home. It's a huge undertaking for a massive system caught unprepared for widespread closure, much less a fundamental change to instruction during the school year.
To respond to the needs of frontline workers, education officials said they aim to open 93 enrichment centers to serve some 57,000 students. Of those, 76 will be K-12 centers and 17 will be early education childhood centers. As of Sunday night, 5,750 parents had applied for spots. But on the eve of the launch of the new enrichment centers, much about the basics— including where they are, who specifically is staffing them, and whom they serve—remained unclear.
"The information has barely trickled out," said Anthony Almojera, vice president of DC37's local 3621 representing EMS workers. He said of his chapter's 580 members, the vast majority are parents, and dozens have said they're struggling to understand how to access childcare.
A DOE spokesperson said parents would be informed which sites they should send their kids to Sunday night, just hours before the centers were scheduled to open. There is no central website listing locations because parents are not allowed to enroll on-site. Here's what is known: centers are scheduled to operate from 7:30 am to 6:00 pm. Officials are promising three hot meals; activities like art, music, and gym; time for remote learning; and emotional support. There will be a maximum of 12 children and one adult in each room, and they're supposed to practice social distancing.
A survey posted late last week listed the groups of eligible workers who can enroll their children. They include health care workers, transit workers, emergency responders, and some sanitation department staff. Almojera said one of his members tried to enroll in the Regional Enrichment Center five days ago and still hasn't gotten a response.
"There are a lot of members who are struggling to provide the life-saving work we do but also take care of their kids," he said. "It's chaotic."
Parents and educators also raised questions about staffing. Last week, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza called on administrators, teachers, therapists, food workers and paraprofessionals to volunteer at the centers, for no additional pay, on top of the remote instruction they're already being asked to provide. According to an agency spokesperson, 3,000 people affiliated with the education department had volunteered to supervise students.
Education department employees and employees of community nonprofits that already partner with the department are the only personnel allowed to work at the centers, because they've been fingerprinted and vetted. But some teachers are raising concerns about being asked to fulfill these roles while maintaining their obligations to their regular students.
Others worried the list of eligible participants left out critical groups. "When the mayor and chancellor first announced they'd be closing schools, they announced there would be regional enrichment centers for the children of emergency workers and vulnerable students," said Randi Levine, policy director at the nonprofit Advocates for Children. "But at this time children who are homeless don't have access."
There are as many as 100,000 students who experience homelessness during the school year, including many doubled or tripled up in apartments with other families or living in hotels. "That means there are parents with potentially multiple children at different grade levels trying to learn while sitting on a bed in a room," she said. She said homeless students already lag behind their peers in educational outcomes. "We're worried about these students falling further behind in the coming weeks."
Advocates for grocery workers and pharmacists have also said the centers should be open for their children. Speaking to WNYC's Brian Lehrer on Friday, de Blasio said he agreed, but getting the centers up and running will be a process.
"First of all, I do think obviously the folks who keep the grocery stores open, the pharmacies open, of course they are essential workers," he said. "And we're trying to figure out how much capacity we can get, how many we can cover...It depends on how many spaces we have, how many kids we can accommodate and trying to really somehow ration that properly."