A struggle is worthless without a change made or a lesson learned. Out of all the darkness we’ve faced in this pandemic, we are looking to create something brighter for the future.
We’ve known for decades that smaller classes enhance teaching and learning. But the pandemic drove home that class size is also a public health issue. At a time when the need for social distancing and proper ventilation persists, smaller classes mean safer spaces for students and staff members.
Let us not lose sight of the great difference that class size makes in education. Fewer students in a class means more one-on-one attention for every student in a classroom, and fewer students means the teacher can meet the needs of children with a range of capabilities — from the child who needs extra guidance to the child who thrives at an accelerated pace.
Class size is also an issue of equity. New York City ranks 664th out of 675 school districts in New York State in class size. Wealthy suburban school districts have had small class sizes for decades. Why should New York City schoolchildren have any less?
It’s that combination of public health, education and equity that makes the New York City Council bill to set lower classroom occupancy limits so important.
The legislation would change the health section of the city’s administrative code to mandate minimal square footage of 28 to 35 square feet per student. Under the bill, the average elementary school classroom of 650 square feet could house no more than 20 children, while the number of high school students in a 750-foot classroom would be capped at 26.
In general, smaller classrooms would hold fewer students, while larger rooms could hold more, as long as the student-to-space ratio fell within the legislative limits. But overall, the new occupancy limits would reduce classes by roughly a quarter to a third of current levels.
The new legislation also gives us the tools to enforce those limits, outlining how the city must report on its progress over the five-year phase-in period.
Our analysis shows that roughly 85% of our school buildings could adopt these new occupancy standards immediately by repurposing administrative and other available spaces. The school system would need to produce only about 38,000 new seats over the next five years, a number well within the projected 55,000 new seats that are already funded in future city budgets.
The union together with parents and advocacy groups mounted a major push this fall to get the legislation passed and signed into law with the current City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio. Thanks to our efforts, 41 Council members had pledged to vote for the bill — a veto-proof majority — but we needed outgoing Speaker Corey Johnson to bring it up for a vote in December.
Nearly 44,000 parents and educators signed our petition calling for class-size reduction, hundreds of school communities participated in our Days of Action on Dec. 1 and 2, and thousands more were active on social media in a concerted effort to push Johnson to act.
As of press time on Dec. 13, Johnson had failed to schedule the vote. While this setback is disappointing, our fight is far from over. We are going to stay with it until we get smaller classes.
Our Days of Action showed the power of collective action. In a time that has been polarizing to say the least, we all joined forces for the greater good. Seeing the creative and engaging ways that members across the city stepped up was inspiring and served as a reminder of how strong our union is when we come together.
We have already begun talking with all the newly elected Council members to secure their support for the bill and we are exploring ways that Albany lawmakers might assist.
We need to keep the pressure on in the new year. If you haven’t already done so, please join the #OurKidsNeed campaign at to help in the fight for the smaller class sizes our students need and deserve.