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Recap of September 20, 2021, Public Conversation with NYC Schools Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter and NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Dave A. Chokshi

Exactly one week after nearly 900,000 students returned to NYC public schools, Schools Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter and NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Dave A. Chokshi joined the Fund for Public Health in NYC (FPHNYC) and The Fund for Public Schools (FPS) for a live, online discussion about the full reopening of schools and public health (watch a recording of the discussion on our YouTube channel).

Dr. Chokshi outlined what he described as “a layered approach” to school health and safety. Because the Delta variant is so highly transmissible, he cautioned against looking for “…a single, silver bullet that will be most protective against COVID-19.” Instead, multiple layers of safety, such as universal mask use in schools, good ventilation, and social distancing come together to offer increased protection, with the core tool being widespread vaccination.

Chancellor Porter spoke about how a culture of personal and shared safety was already taking hold in the schools she has visited:

“We’ve done a lot of work, not only with our teachers and our staff, but also to train our students around what it means to be a good citizen at this moment. I am so proud of the way young people are taking their health and the health of their classmates seriously.”

For the Department of Health and the Department of Education, collaborating to ensure students’ health and wellbeing pre-dates the COVID pandemic. The Office of School Health is a joint responsibility of the two agencies, offering direct services that Dr. Chokshi called, “…particularly important as students are returning into schools after they may not have been able to get the routine care that they need due to the pandemic.” These include vision screening, dental cleanings, and reproductive health services – examples of the many services that “…make schools a center of gravity for health in our communities.”

Of particular importance is addressing the mental health needs of students, as well as teachers and school staff. Chancellor Portner described a “historic investment” in students’ mental health, with more than 600 new social workers, school psychologists, and family support workers hired for the new school year. Teachers and staff have received trauma-informed care training and can participate in social-emotional learning activities. “We’ve worked really hard to make sure that as we lean into our instructional priorities and principles for the school year, we also lean into our classrooms being healing spaces,” she said.

Dr. Chokshi took stock of the close working relationship between the Department of Health and the Department of Education, which developed further during the COVID-19 pandemic:

“Getting schools open, although it’s a monumental and Herculean task, I hope that there are ways that we can continue to forge ahead and build on this strong foundation. Health and education are twin pillars of opportunity for so many people.”

Both Chancellor Porter and Commissioner Chokshi noted that for all the progress made safeguarding the wellbeing and health of students, their families, and teachers, schools don’t operate in a vacuum. What all New Yorkers do matters, which is why the most important course of action for keeping our communities safe is for as many people as possible to get vaccinated.

FPHNYC and FPS want to thank Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter and Commissioner Dave A. Chokshi for joining us for this important conversation, FPHNYC Board member Dr. Melynda Barnes and FPS Board member Ms. Ayah Bdeir for facilitating this discussion, and all those who submitted questions in advance and participated in this public event.

For information on COVID-19 vaccinations, visit the Department of Health’s website or call 311. For up-to-date information on health and wellness in NYC public schools, including COVID-19 information, visit the Department of Education’s website.

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