From afar, the demonstration looked like a street fair or a farmer's market. Past a crossing guard, a traffic barricade and a handwashing station, teachers held lessons with children under 10, who sat on cushions on asphalt.
“Teachers and principals and parents are modeling outdoor learning, and fighting to get more of it and soon,” said City Council Member Brad Lander, who has been polling school districts on their desire for outdoor schooling since July.
The demonstration follows a deal Tuesday between Mayor Bill de Blasio and unions representing school staff and administrators, who had been talking about a possible strike out of concern that the school system wasn't ready to safely start the school year. In a compromise, the start of mixed in-person and online learning was delayed for several days, and city officials promised to test 10-20% of students and staff for the virus each month.
If New York City schools open their classrooms to students as planned on Sept. 21, it will be the largest district to have pupils physically in school buildings during the pandemic. Schools like P.S. 15 have completed surveys on their furniture and street permitting needs in recent days as part of a last-minute effort by the city to support outdoor learning. The city's Department of Education is not expected to respond to the requests before school starts.
The idea of educating students outside in Red Hook would have once raised serious safety concerns. P.S. 15 is also known as the Patrick F. Daly School, named after a principal who was killed by a stray bullet in 1992 when the neighborhood was infested with violent drug gangs. These days it is exponentially safer, like the rest of the city.
Eighth grader Lina Rosario, of M.S. 839, is looking forward to getting out of the house and seeing her friends again. “I was sitting at home and it was really boring,” she said of the online learning that started in March, as her mother watched the demonstration outside P.S. 15. “It got really old, really quickly.”
Naila Rosario, 39, co-president of the PTA at Lina Rosario's school, says feels comfortable with the security measures — a guard at each end of the block — and says streetside classrooms aren't that different from outdoor school events she's seen at her school in previous years.
Schools across the country have decided to delay in-person schooling as late as January, citing ventilation issues or lack of space to ensure social distancing. Supporters of outdoor schooling in Red Hook say that outdoor classrooms can happen on any street with few resources.
The tents used in the demonstration could be vulnerable to wind. The cold might make lessons impossible for a few months. But questions remain as to whether schools can sprawl into city streets while protecting students, and what, if any funding may be available for amenities like tents to protect students from the rain.
But Lander, the city council member, argues that some degree of increased outdoor space is possible and useful. “I think even when it gets really quite cold that kids and teachers would much rather come outside and eat their lunch outdoors than stay sitting at their desks, in the same desk they've been sitting at in the same room, with their masks off,” Lander said.
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.