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Why not use Rochester's vacant offices for schools?

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Rochester Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small has unveiled a plan for reopening schools that, like many suburban districts, calls for students to alternate between classrooms and online learning.

Students in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade would split their time between in-person classes in school and remote learning each week, while students in fifth grade through high school would learn solely online.

Myers-Small, like her suburban counterparts, explained that space was the biggest obstacle to opening for live classes five days a week. School administrators say there just isn’t enough elbow room for students and staff to abide physical distancing guidelines.

That’s true if school districts are only searching within the walls of the facilities they own. There are only so many auditoriums, gymnasiums, and teachers’ lounges to squeeze.

But if school administrators looked between the couch cushions of our community, they would find an abundance of quality indoor space — namely vacant office space. This is especially true in Rochester.

By some measures, the office market in Rochester is the worst it’s been in a few years.



In its annual survey of downtown office space last year, the Rochester Downtown Development Corp. found precisely 2,001,389 square feet of empty offices — an increase of 31 percent from the previous year.

We’re not talking about bombed-out storefronts. We’re talking about “Class A” and “Class B” office space.

Those are designations that the Building Owners and Managers Association International refer to, respectively, as having “high quality standard finishes, state of the art systems, exceptional accessibility” and “finishes that are good for the area and systems that are adequate.”

Both settings sound ideal for erecting a makeshift school in a pinch — and the pandemic has public schools and the families that rely on them in nothing if not a pinch.

Children need schools to reopen. Their parents aren’t teachers. Learning reading, writing, and math aside, children need socialization and competition and cooperation. They need friendships and time away from their families.

Parents need their kids to get out of the house, too, so they can return to work.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has urged school administrators to think about their reopening plans from the “goal of having students physically present in school.”

One option that has gotten a lot of attention since it was posited in a column in The New York Times this month is the “open-air” or outdoor school. Cities across the northeastern United States opened outdoor classes in the early 20th century to limit the spread of tuberculosis. Rochester had a few.

The piece waxed romantic about students weathering the harsh New England winter by wearing “Eskimo sitting bags” and keeping heated soapstones at their feet.

But who are we kidding? We’ve softened since then. Superintendents routinely cancel school for cold nowadays. Grownups can’t get their kids to stop fidgeting with their facemasks, and we expect them to sit in a sleeping bag on Parcel 5 in February?

Under the circumstances, tapping vacant offices makes far more sense. There are plenty of them.

The former Xerox Tower alone has 580,636 “Class A” square feet spread out over 30 floors for the taking, according to the RDDC survey.

Consider the possibilities. 
Rochester Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small discusses reopening schools safely outside the School of the Arts on July 30, 2020. - PHOTO BY DAVID ANDREATTA
  • PHOTO BY DAVID ANDREATTA
  • Rochester Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small discusses reopening schools safely outside the School of the Arts on July 30, 2020.


State Education Department guidelines for new construction suggest a minimum of 770 square feet per elementary school classroom and “interchangeable” secondary school classrooms, like rooms used for teaching English, or history, or math. Subjects like science, computers, and vocational training call for more room.

That standard assumes a laughable maximum of 15 students per room with one teacher, or roughly one student for every 50 square feet. So, that’s the ideal, even though many overcrowded schools don’t meet that benchmark.

In its guidance on reopening schools, the Education Department recommended adding 20 square feet per student. In other words, 70 square feet per student is needed to open safely.

By that measure, Xerox Tower alone could host nearly 8,300 students. That’s almost a third of the entire Rochester City School District.

And there’s another 1.4 million square feet of prime office space on top of that just sitting around town mothballing — all of it on public transportation routes.

“It’s not that it’s a crazy idea,” said Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of the RDDC. “The issue, of course, is money. In the end, all of this gets down to money.”

She’s right. The vacant office space, unlike the parks that could be turned into outdoor classrooms, is privately owned by developers looking for a return on their investment. Then there are the additional teachers that will be needed to fill the space.

The state and federal governments have to open up their wallets. That’s the bottom line.

Admittedly, this is a half-baked plan. There are logistical hurdles to it. But it's worth considering. We need to get inventive.

Within hours of the RCSD reopening plan being revealed, the Rochester Teachers Association drafted a resolution calling for in-school learning to be postponed until at least November, citing a lack of resources to keep students and educators safe.

School districts are scrounging for space. Letting them look between the community couch cushions requires the entire community to get off the couch.

David Andreatta is CITY’s editor. He can be reached at dandreatta@rochester-citynews.com.