Schools seeking space in streets and
parks stymied by city’s inaction
BY RACHEL HOLLIDAY SMITH
On the Upper East Side, two private schools hoped
to use part of a dead-end block for less than six
hours each weekday to help students keep a safe
In Brooklyn Heights, the Saint Ann’s School eyed using
local parks and streets for its kids. And on the Lower East
Side, public school offi cials submitted plans to the city
Department of Transportation to utilize adjacent streets
to help keep students spread out.
But with less than a month before school begins, none of
them have gotten the go-ahead — and with about 736,000
public school students set to start the school year with
in-person learning, the city is no closer to making a plan for
allowing students to use New York’s most readily available
public spaces: streets and parks.
On the Lower East Side, school administrators were
told in an Aug. 3 letter from the DOT obtained by THE
CITY that they would not get an answer for their plans
to use space on public streets until late October — more
than a month into fall.
To Naomi Peña, a parent to three public school students
in the area and president of District 1’s Community Education
Council, the city needs to move faster so schools can
“We’re going to have to undo a lot of stress that has
happened since March,” she said. “If we’re going to create
some sort of normalcy with the kids or with the families,
we have to do it from the very onset.”
In Brooklyn, the head of Saint Ann’s, Vince Tompkins,
wrote to parents in a memo last week that the pre-K-12
school had made “multiple direct and third-party inquiries
with the Department of Transportation throughout the
summer to request street closures during school hours”
— with no success.
“We have been told such permits are not available and
that there is as yet not even a process in place to request
them,” he wrote in the August 6 email.
Tompkins told THE CITY he knows the transportation
and parks agencies are “doing all they can under trying
“Both public and private schools await clearer policies
that will make outdoor spaces available to schools in an
equitable way at a time when outdoor spaces are a much
needed feature of K-12 education,” he said by email.
A ‘Shocking’ Reaction
A parent at Saint Ann’s said the lack of information is
“Maybe this doesn’t work, maybe it can’t work. But for
God’s sake, if we can fi gure out a way to let people drink
outside, you should at least be contemplating a way for
people to get educated outside,” he said.
On East 76th Street in Manhattan, a similar attempt to
use outdoor space went nowhere this summer.
Tony private schools Lycée Francais and The Town
PHOTO BY BEN FRACTENBERG/THE CITY Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights, Aug. 11, 2020.
School are near neighbors on the south side of the quiet
street that dead-ends at the FDR Drive. Last month, the
two schools teamed up to present a plan to Manhattan
Community Board 8: They wanted to use a portion of the
block, from 9 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. on school days, for recreation
while they use their gyms and cafeteria as classroom
Lycée Francais and The Town School were ready to
split the cost of a crossing guard, and promised to stay
in constant contact with the schools’ neighbors to make
sure vehicles could get in and out. But dozens of East 76th
Street residents showed up to the virtual board meetings
to voice opposition — and the board ultimately voted
down the idea on July 15.
The advisory vote was reported to the DOT, which typically
gives deference to a local board when considering
History of Outdoor Lessons
Parents, local educators and education experts have for
weeks fl oated the idea of schools using outdoor spaces. A
New York Times column last month showed 1910s-era
city kids studying on a ferry, in open-air classrooms and
bundled up on a rooftop to beat back tuberculosis and
Nearly 5,000 people have signed a petition in support
of the open-air concept for public schools. Some elected
offi cials also have pushed for more outdoor spaces for
schools across the city.
In Park Slope, 14 public schools have created plans to
use surrounding streets for educational and recreational
space, and their Councilmember Brad Lander penned a
letter to the city urging action on the issue.
“A citywide system that enables schools to request closed
streets, makes it easier to get permits for parks, and shared
funding from schools with PTAs that can afford tents and
gear, would go a long way to making access to outdoor
space more equitable,” he wrote in an August 2 op-ed for
City Comptroller Scott Stringer, too, has pushed for
schools to hold as many outdoor classes as possible. He
said the DOT’s timeline for a response to schools’ requests
Representatives of the Parks Department and the Department
of Transportation declined to comment, deferring
instead to the mayor’s offi ce.
Mitch Schwartz, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio,
said in a statement on behalf of the DOT that the city
is “grateful for every school community’s fl exibility and
creativity as we navigate an unprecedented crisis.”
“We’ll continue evaluating the use of outdoor space, and
we look forward to sharing more with parents and students
in the coming weeks,” he said.
Laura Feyer, a mayoral spokesperson speaking on behalf
of the Parks Department, said in a statement: “We are
looking to maximize available space throughout New York
City to serve children, but need to make sure they meet
health and safety standards and staffi ng requirements.”
When asked about the proposals at his daily briefi ng
Monday, de Blasio said the city is searching for many types
of extra space for schools — including indoor space sought
in a citywide hunt for more square footage, as previously
reported by THE CITY.
“We’re going to get our hands on everything we can get
our hands on in the next month,” he said, adding that “in
good weather, outdoors is defi nitely something that can
add different options for schools.”
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said that he was
open to outdoor classes, but added that, “as a teacher,” he
had doubts about how such arrangements would work in
This story was fi rst published on Aug. 11, 2020, by THE
CITY, an independent, nonprofi t news outlet dedicated to
hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.
14 August 13, 2020 Schneps Media