At P.S. 705 In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Going Above and Beyond Leads to a Successful In-Person Return to Classes

A fourth-grade classroom at P.S. 705, set up with desks in small clusters, windows open, and improved mechanical ventilation for fall 2021. (Betsy Ladyzhets / COVID-19 Data Dispatch)

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The series, “Opening” was originally published in Betsy Ladyzhets’ newsletter, COVID-19 Data Dispatch, a weekly newsletter exploring the state of COVID-19 data in the United States.

On the morning of Aug. 26, parents from Brooklyn Arts & Science Elementary School (or P.S. 705) flocked to the school for an open house ahead of the fall 2021 semester. Parents climbed up a flight of stairs — designated P.S. 705-only — to the second floor of a building in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. They walked down squeaky-clean hallways, toured classrooms with desks carefully spaced three feet apart, and heard the whir of newly-installed fans and portable ventilation units.

The event was live-streamed for those who couldn’t make it in person. About 100 parents attended the open house events online and in-person, Principal Valerie Macey estimated, representing around one-third of the school’s 308 students.

The school had already done “a lot of communication,” Macey said — so parents were familiar with safety protocols going into the open house, and questions focused on more typical school concerns such as homework policy. This past communication included weekly town hall meetings, virtual office hours, and individual calls to families.

P.S. 705 went above and beyond New York City school reopening guidance, with a particular reliance on the city’s surveillance testing program. This elementary school had 55% in-person enrollment by the end of the 2020-2021 school year, above the city’s average of about 40%, and made it through the year with just 11 total cases — and zero closures.

P.S. 705 is the subject of the final profile in the COVID-19 Data Dispatch’s “Opening” series. Alongside four other school communities, we selected it because the majority of the school’s students returned to in-person learning during the 2020-2021 school year — and city officials identified COVID-19 cases in under 5% of the student population. (According to the CDC, about 5% of school-aged children in the U.S. contracted COVID-19 between the start of the pandemic and early August 2021.)

As the other four school communities in this project are rural districts — following a trend in our data analysis, which primarily identified rural areas — we felt it was important to include a city school in the project. We additionally wanted to highlight New York State’s surveillance testing program, as it’s one of the few school testing programs with public data available. Plus, the COVID-19 Data Dispatch was able to visit this school in person, as this reporter (Betsy Ladyzhets) is based in Brooklyn.

Extensive parent communication

New York City, which has the largest public school district in the U.S., faced challenges with maintaining parent trust during the pandemic. In fall 2020, the city started offering hybrid learning, with cohorts of students returning to classrooms for two or three days a week. But only one in four students actually returned to classrooms by early November, according to the New York Times. In spring 2021, many schools were able to offer five days a week in-person, but most students still stayed home. Parents criticized NYC leaders for confusing communication; teachers protested unsafe conditions at their school buildings; and some staff, like those working with special education students, claimed the city’s plan left them behind.

At P.S. 705, more students returned to in-person learning (55%) than the city average (40%). School administrators made it a priority to provide parents with information and make themselves available for questions. This frequent communication was a major reason why parents felt safe sending their children back to classrooms, representatives from the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) said in a group interview with administrators and other school staff.

Town halls — livestreamed to parents — are one hallmark of P.S. 705’s communication. After initial school-wide meetings, administrators devised a schedule in which the weekly town halls alternated between grade levels, in order to focus on concerns for specific age groups.

Takiesha Robinson, the PTA president, recalled that these meetings were well-attended; Principal Macey estimated that 30 to 40 parents typically joined the grade-specific events, accounting for the majority of the school’s 40 to 50 students in a grade. “The town halls [were] a very good open forum to let the parents know that you [the administrators] are listening, you do care, you are here,” she said. When parents provided feedback on something they felt wasn’t working, administrators responded quickly, Robinson said.

In addition to the town halls, P.S. 705 administrators staffed a “virtual main office” where parents could enter and ask additional questions. Each morning, administrators logged onto a virtual meeting which stayed live throughout the day. “Parents could come in and ask any questions when they needed,” said Melissa Graham, P.S. 705’s parent coordinator.

School staff also reached out to families proactively when they identified a potential need for support, such as after a student missed class. This school is located on the border of Crown Heights and Prospect Heights, both neighborhoods that were hard-hit by the pandemic: in the school’s ZIP code and in a neighboring ZIP code where families live, one out of every 11 people was diagnosed with COVID-19, according to NYC data.

At P.S. 705 itself, 41% of students are Black and 32% are Hispanic or Latino, two groups that saw disproportionately high COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in Brooklyn. Principal Macey explained that the staff wanted to know when students lost loved ones or went through other COVID-related struggles.

“The staff and administration went above and beyond to reach out to those families,” said Alison Gilles, PTA secretary. “[The pandemic] definitely hit our community really hard. But 705 is just the kind-of place where it is a ‘wrap your arms around the whole family’ kind-of a school.”

Surveillance testing

P.S. 705 utilized NYC’s COVID-19 testing program to identify cases before they turned into outbreaks. Starting in October 2020, the NYC Department of Education (DOE) required all schools open for in-person learning to test 20% of their on-site students and staff once a month. In December, as the winter COVID-19 surge grew, this requirement was increased to once a week.

Through partnerships between the city DOE and PCR testing labs, students and staff could get tested right at their school buildings, with results available in two to three days. At P.S. 705, students were tested in the school auditorium, one grade at a time: students filed in at one side of the room, got swabbed one by one, then waited in socially-distanced seats to return to class.

For this school, the city’s 20% requirement shook out to about 45 people. But P.S. 705 “over-volunteered for the testing,” according to DOE spokesperson Nathaniel Styer. Administrators realized that testing was a great tool to keep their classrooms safe and encouraged staff and students to get swabbed even when it wasn’t required.

“There were a lot of people apprehensive, initially, about being tested,” said Principal Macey. So, she, along with Graham (the parent coordinator) and Assistant Principal Kristen Pelekanakis, routinely got tested first so that students and staff could see how easy the process was. During the week of January 20, 2021, for example, over 150 staffers and students were tested—out of about 200 total people in the building.

Just as young students got used to masks in Oregon, the Brooklyn students got used to swabs. Graham recalled: “I would come into the classroom with a clipboard, and I would have kids being like, ‘Take me! Take me! I’m getting tested this week!’”

In fact, Pelekanakis said that she and other administrators wished testing capacity was higher, so that they could test even more students. The majority of the school’s active cases were caught through random testing, she said; those students were asymptomatic and, she believed, likely wouldn’t have been identified as infected if not for P.S. 705 testing above their required level. The school saw a total of eight student cases and three staff cases all year — comprising just under 5% of the onsite students and staff.

The city’s testing requirement has become less stringent for fall 2021. Now, only 10% of unvaccinated students will be tested every other week, and students must opt in to the program rather than requiring testing for all. According to Principal Macey, all the students who attended in-person classes in spring 2021 had opted into the fall testing program as of early September; she plans on heavily promoting the program to the students who were remote last year through upcoming town halls and other communication.

Macey and the other staffers — who must be vaccinated with at least one dose by the end of September, per a city-wide mandate — aren’t required to participate in testing this fall. But Macey still intends to serve as an example for her students: “I’ll test, just because I want my kids to see,” she said.

Returning to one school community

NYC is heading into the fall 2021 semester with no remote option. At P.S. 705, this means more than 100 students who learned remotely for the entire 2020-2021 school year will be coming back to classrooms. Administrators are preparing with more parent communication (weekly town hall meetings and the late-August open house), while the DOE updates their building’s ventilation system.

The COVID-19 Data Dispatch (CDD) visited P.S. 705 on Sept. 3, just ten days before classrooms open for the new school year. At that time, Principal Macey said the school just finished an overhaul of its HVAC system, updating ventilation throughout the building. The school also had external filtration units, fans, and windows open for additional airflow. In classrooms, desks are spaced three feet apart — down from six feet last year. And custodians are making the building look like new: During the CDD’s visit, Principal Macey told a custodian that she wants to see her face “shining in the floor” by the first day of school.

Summer renovations at P.S. 705 were extensive, according to reporting at Gothamist: In mid-August, “the building that houses Brooklyn Arts and Science Elementary School reported that all 40 of its classrooms were under repair.” At the time of publishing, just one classroom is still marked under repair by the DOE, while three rooms (two staff offices and a bathroom) have no mechanical ventilation.

At the Sept. 3 visit, administrators and teachers told the CDD that they were optimistic about the new school year. “The kids are really good with [keeping] their masks on,” said fourth-grade teacher Denise Garcia. She felt that, with similar protocols in place, the school could continue to have low case counts like the previous year.
This year’s first day of school will be far from typical. Principal Macey has planned for a big celebration, including outdoor activities, a literal red carpet, photo opportunities, and a moment of silence for loved ones lost in the pandemic.

“It can’t just be, ‘go inside, wash your hands,’” she said. “We have to get that space to just reconnect.” With continued communication and acknowledgement of the pandemic’s hardships, she intends to lead her school back into “one school community.”

Betsy Ladyzhets is the founder and editor-in-chief of the COVID-19 Data Dispatch, a weekly newsletter exploring the state of COVID-19 data in the United States.

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