Why schools should not be reopened next year without reducing class size

The need to reduce class size next fall to improve health and safety and strengthen academic and emotional support and how this could be achieved through budget savings

Download the PDF version here.

Shorter version in the Gotham Gazette, “To Reopen Schools, The Mayor Needs Smaller Classes — Here’s $570 Million in Potential Department of Education Savings to Get Him Started”

May 12, 2020

It was recently reported that 72 NYC Department of Education employees had died from Coronavirus, including 28 paraprofessionals and 28 teachers.[1] Evidence has also emerged that children can develop serious illnesses after being infected with the virus, and even those who are asymptomatic are often effective transmitters.[2]

Now that both the Mayor and the Governor have wisely decided that our public schools will be closed through the end of June, it is time to start thinking about how they will be reopened next fall, to maximize the health and safety of students and staff, and strengthen the academic and emotional support students will need to make up for the myriad losses they have suffered this year.

As Mayor de Blasio has said, “Next school year will have to be the greatest academic school year New York City will ever have because everyone is going to be playing catch up.” [3] And yet he has also proposed over $800 million in reductions to the Department of Education, including staffing freezes and at least $140 million taken directly out of school budgets, which would likely cause class sizes to grow even larger , the loss of  school counselors and more.  How could next year be the best year ever, given such drastic reductions?  In fact, our schools will need increased investments to provide the enhanced feedback and encouragement that students will so desperately need after months of disconnected remote learning

Many countries, including Denmark, Germany and France, are reducing class size, to obtain the recommended social distancing within classrooms to stop the spread of the virus, sometimes by introducing split or staggered schedules.   Some US states are proposing to lower class sizes too, including California. The American Federation of Teachers has recommended this step be taken throughout the nation: :  “one of the most important measures districts can take is to reduce class sizes…Class sizes of 12-15 students will, in most circumstances, make it possible to maintain physical distancing protocols.”[4]

Smaller classes have also been shown through research to boost learning and provide the social and emotional connection that many students will need from their teachers, given the loss in learning and the stress and suffering caused by the pandemic this year.  Shouldn’t class size reduction happen in NYC too, and if so, how?

Clearly, every available space would have to be used in our school buildings to accomplish the social distancing and smaller classes required.  Split sessions would also be needed in many of our overcrowded schools.  More funding for the additional staffing will be required.  Yet considerable savings could be obtained by cutting other areas of the education budget.

As a letter signed by 34 City Council members pointed out, rather than cut school budgets, the city could lower spending on “consultants, administration, cancelled or unnecessary testing, and contract reductions.”[5]

Prominent among these savings this year is the more than $1.1 billion spent annually on school busing. After a campaign led by Class Size Matters, and the NYC Comptroller sent a letter to the Chancellor, pointing out that the city had no legal obligation to renew these expensive busing contracts in the midst of a pandemic when schools were closed, the DOE has postponed the vote to renew them that was originally scheduled for the April 22 meeting of the Panel for Education Policy.

Those contracts would have extended the busing contracts for March and April of this year at a cost of $400 million.  Cancelling them through the end of the year could save as much as $700 million.  The DOE still hasn’t reported on whether they’ve already paid for busing for March and April, despite the fact that this was not yet approved by Panel members, but in any case, savings of $400 million to $700 million could be achieved via this single step.

There are also considerable savings that could be achieved this year in energy, facilities and supplies, given the fact that school buildings will have been closed three and a half months by the end of the year, and will likely be shut over the summer as well.  About $570 million was allocated for energy and leases this year – with more than $175 million for energy and fuel costs alone.  Surely, at least $25 million could be saved in this category.

While DOE has proposed to freeze the hiring of school staffing, including teachers, counselors and aides, they plan to increase spending on School Safety Agents hired by the police, from $427 million to more than $432 million.  School Safety Agents already number over 5,500, more than the number of counselors, social workers and school psychologists combined.[6] If the spending on these agents was merely frozen at last year’s levels, that would save at least $5.6 million right there.

As previously reported by the City Council, 155 employees were added to the DOE’s Central Administration in 2019, and 185 more to Borough Offices.[7] Large raises were awarded to administrators, leading to a 50 percent increase in the number of bureaucrats who earned more than $200,000 per year.[8]

The mid-level bureaucracy which includes Borough offices and is categorized by DOE in their budget as “School Support Organizations” has more than doubled in spending since 2014 when de Blasio was elected.  See the chart below from the NYC Independent Budget Office:

If spending on the School Support category returned to what was allocated in 2014, that alone could save another $147 million.

Last year, DOE assigned computerized, diagnostic MAP assessments in many schools throughout the city, which they previously testified that they intend to expand throughout the system. According to NYC Checkbook , they contracted with NWEA, the company that produces these assessments at a cost of $5.25 million with $1.66 million spent to date.[9] Yet a randomized experimental study showed that the use of MAP exams was not correlated with any gains in student achievement., and many educators as well as researchers question their validity.[10]

With more than  $570 million in savings described above, we could prevent any cuts to school budgets and allocate at least $100 million to hire staff to lower class size, as many education experts and advocacy groups advocated for, at standing room only hearings in February at City Hall,  before the pandemic hit.[11]

Moreover, about one third of elementary grade classes and 40 percent of middle school classes are inclusion classes, meaning that there are two teachers per class and include both general education students and students with disabilities.  Strong consideration should be given to dividing these classes in half, while keeping their inclusive composition, which would allow for class sizes of 10 to 16 without any additional hiring.

NYC schools also have comparatively low student/teacher ratios compared to our class sizes, at 14 students per teacher, including many push-in specialists as well as other personnel such as literacy coaches who generally spend little actual time working directly with students. All these instructional personnel could be re-deployed and assigned to teach classes, at no added expense.

In addition, DOE should consider providing intensive tutoring to our most struggling students, starting this summer and continuing through next year, by enlisting volunteers from well-established organizations such as Literacy Inc., and/or recent college graduates whose salaries could be subsidized through the AmeriCorps program.

Our public schools still have not fully recovered from the last economic recession in 2007-2008, when class sizes increased sharply.  This fall, there were more than 335,000 students in class sizes of 30 or more, with the number of children in grades 1 to 3 in classes that large having risen by nearly 3,000% since 2007.[12]

Over this period, student achievement in NYC remained stagnant or has even declined, as measured by their results on the NAEPs, the most reliable national assessments.[13]  We simply cannot afford to allow our children to lose any more ground.  With targeted savings used to pay for hiring of more teachers and counselors, and redeploying others already on staff,  smaller classes could be achieved to provide students next fall, with the instructional and emotional support that they will need more than ever before.


[1] https://abc7ny.com/teacher-deaths-doe-department-of-education-schools/6150719/

[2] https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/15-nyc-children-sickened-with-rare-covid-related-illness-here-are-the-warning-signs/2404162/ and https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/05/health/coronavirus-children-transmission-school.html  

[3] https://ny.chalkbeat.org/2020/4/11/21225497/de-blasio-says-nyc-school-buildings-will-close-for-the-rest-of-the-year-but-cuomo-says-not-so-fast

[4] https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/covid19_reopen-america-schools.pdf

[5] https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/education/ny-de-blasio-education-cuts-20200505-7p7bcefy4nfkbivmi6skzhpmoq-story.html

[6] https://brooklyneagle.com/articles/2019/06/05/pol-pushes-for-more-emotional-support-in-schools-says-thrivenyc-isnt-cutting-it/

[7] https://council.nyc.gov/budget/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2019/05/DOE-SCA.pdf (Page 7)

[8] https://nypost.com/2019/08/17/salaries-gone-wild-carranza-cronies-pocket-pay-hikes-as-high-as-35/

[9] https://www.checkbooknyc.com/contracts_landing/status/A/yeartype/B/year/121/vendor/11204?expandBottomCont=true

[10] See https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED537982.pdf  and

https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/educators-debate-validity-of-map-testing/  and


[11] https://ny.chalkbeat.org/2020/2/28/21178673/calls-for-smaller-class-size-grow-louder-nyc-parents-students-and-educators-say-there-s-a-big-need-t and https://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/news/2020/03/02/advocates–parents-and-educators-push-for-smaller-class-sizes and https://nycpublicschoolparents.blogspot.com/2020/02/council-hearings-on-class-size-so.html; testimony is posted here: https://classsizematters.org/testimony-on-the-importance-of-lowering-class-size-in-nyc-schools/  and

[12] https://secureservercdn.net/

[13] https://ny.chalkbeat.org/2019/10/30/21109120/nyc-scores-are-flat-on-national-reading-and-math-test

Categories Reports & Memos, Uncategorized, Updates | Tags: | Posted on May 14, 2020

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