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Council leaders support bill to cap classroom capacity

Public health measure would reduce the possibility of viral spread
News Stories
Three men wearing suits standing at a podium
Bruce Cotler

City Council Education Committee Chair Mark Treyger (center), flanked by City Council Finance Chair Daniel Dromm (at left) and UFT President Michael Mulgrew (at right), announces a bill that would limit the number of occupants in school classrooms for health and safety reasons at a press conference outside City Hall on July 29.

New York City Council leaders on July 29 introduced a bill that would limit classroom capacity as a public health measure to ensure better ventilation and reduce the possibility of viral spread.

The long-sought goal of reducing crowded classrooms has taken on new urgency during the pandemic, and the proposed revision to the city’s Administrative Code could solve that problem by limiting the number of occupants in school classrooms by at least a third.

“We have schools at over 200% occupancy,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said at a press conference outside City Hall. “Enough is enough. The city will never have a plan to address overcrowding until it is forced to do so through legislation.”

He added that “making sure that we are not cramming too many children into each classroom is an important step to reassuring parents that we have learned from this pandemic — that it is not business as usual.”

“Class size is a public health issue,” said City Council Education Committee Chair Mark Treyger, who introduced the legislation. “This is not the last pandemic New York City will experience.”

Treyger noted that the health code has not been updated since 1938, when the city was dealing with a tuberculosis outbreak.

The proposed legislation would raise the minimum per-person classroom space for grades 1-12 to 35 square feet per student, up from the current 20 square feet per student in grades 1-12. Pre-K and kindergarten classes already provide 35 square feet per student.

Most regular classroom instruction is in rooms ranging from 500 to 750 square feet, according to the city’s data. Under the new guidelines, the maximum number of students in a 500-square-foot classroom would be 14; in a 750-square-foot room, the total would be 21.

The restrictions would also apply to non-classroom instructional spaces such as counseling and pullout rooms, along with larger areas, including art studios, music and assembly rooms.

The legislation would phase in the lower capacity limits over three years to provide time for schools to figure out how to acquire space for smaller classes, whether through staggered hours, the use of a school library or the building of an annex.

“This should have been done years ago,” said City Council Finance Chair Daniel Dromm, the bill’s co-sponsor who represents Jackson Heights, Queens. “Due to overcrowding in many districts such as mine, this initiative will be challenging but also worthwhile."

Treyger said the city now has significant federal and state resources to implement a phased-in plan. All schools would be required to be compliant by September 2024, with 33% of schools compliant by the start of the 2022-23 school year and 66% of schools by the start of the 2023-24 school year.

The bill also requires the city Department of Education to provide an annual report to track progress until 100% of city schools meet the requirements by the start of the 2024-25 school year.

The Council will next set a hearing on the legislation as it begins its deliberations.

Related Topics: Education Law