NEW YORK – New York City completed the reopening of all its public schools on Thursday (Oct 1) morning, a major step in its recovery from having been the global epicentre of the pandemic and a hopeful sign for the country’s unsteady effort to return children to classrooms.
Not long after sunrise, middle and high school principals welcomed students back into their buildings for the first time since March, following elementary school children who had started earlier this week. About half a million students, from 3-year-olds in prekindergarten programmes to high school seniors, will have returned to school by next week.
Thursday was the first day of in-person learning for Kelisha Prines, 14, at Bedford Academy High School in Brooklyn.
“She wanted to get back to the old feeling of school, sitting in the classroom,” her mother Myisha Sawyer, 32, said. “She missed her friends, just being around kids.”
Roughly 480,000 children have opted to start the school year remote-only, an indication of how wary many New Yorkers are of sending their children back to classrooms in a city that fears a second wave of the coronavirus.
“We did something that other cities around the country could only dream of,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday morning. “This is a key moment in our rebirth, and a lot of people said it couldn’t be done.”
School reopening is perhaps the most significant indicator of the city’s return to a new normal: Indoor dining resumed this week at reduced capacity, and museums have begun to reopen. But Broadway is still shuttered, and major tourist areas are still largely deserted. As many as half of the city’s restaurants and bars could close because of the pandemic, according to a recent state audit.
Despite considerable political opposition to reopening and significant planning problems that forced the mayor to twice delay the start of in-person classes, New York, which has by far the nation’s largest school system, is now the only large district in the country that has reopened all its schools for in-person instruction.
Some other big districts are not far behind, though they have faced their own challenges. Schools in Miami-Dade County are set to reopen on Monday, at the order of Florida’s education commissioner, despite strong opposition from the teachers union. School leaders in Houston; Washington, DC; Atlanta; and San Diego are also planning to bring at least some students back into classrooms later this month.
Like many other big-city school leaders, Ms Cindy Marten, the superintendent in San Diego, said that she was watching New York largely to see what it took not just to open schools but to keep them open as students and staff members test positive for the virus.
“As cases are spiking, what’s happening, and what kinds of decisions are they making, and what are they basing their decisions on?” she said, adding that, according to the experts her district has consulted, “The key to staying open is testing.”
New York’s reopening effort has been plagued by political issues and logistical concerns from the moment Mr de Blasio announced in July that schools would reopen on a hybrid basis, with children reporting to school one to three days a week to allow for social distancing.
The United Federation of Teachers, the city’s powerful teachers union, soon began raising alarms about the need for safety measures, including upgraded ventilation systems in classrooms and a more robust testing program in schools.
At one point last month, the unions representing both teachers and principals delivered an urgent warning: If the mayor reopened schools as scheduled, they said, children would report to classrooms without teachers because of a huge staffing shortage. The city has hired thousands of teachers, but the staffing issue is not entirely resolved.
And earlier this week, the union representing city principals said its members had lost confidence in the mayor’s ability to reopen schools and called on the state to take over the effort.
Still, Mr de Blasio forged ahead, arguing that reopening schools was a moral imperative. Students in pre-K classes and children with advanced disabilities returned to classrooms last week.
There have not been any major issues reported at schools that have been open for several days, according to the teachers union and education officials. But there have been scenes of confusion in some schools. One teacher reported that no students had showed up as of Thursday morning.
And city officials said the John F. Kennedy Jr School in Queens was shut down on Tuesday for two weeks after two people there had tested positive.
More common were the sights and sounds of students – nervous, excited or bored – lugging backpacks into subway cars and waiting outside school buildings to have their temperatures checked, as parents crowded nearby, filming the children with their cellphones.
Ms Gwen Leifer’s 11-year-old son was one of the children heading into the school. After the delays in reopening, Leifer said she was not sure schools would ever open, particularly as Rego Park has seen a recent uptick in cases.
Her son is in a special education class to help him with his speech and motor disabilities. Ms Leifer and her husband Justin Levinson both work full time, making it difficult to help their son with online classes.
“Can we gain the ground that we lost in the seven months without school?” she said.
Marshall Francois, 14, stood in front of Bedford Academy High School, in Bedford-Stuyvesant and pulled a black face mask down as his mother took his photo.
It was his first day of high school, and Marshall said that he was nervous because he did not know anybody in his cohort.
“I’ve got three friends,” he said. “I’m in a different group than them, so it’s going to be hard.”
Marshall was not worried about the new measures to protect students’ health, like wearing his mask or keeping hand sanitiser in his bag. But not being allowed to move freely around the building, he said, might be a challenge.
“I have to stay in the same classroom every day,” he said. “It’s going to be boring.”
Despite getting children back into classrooms, the city still faces myriad challenges. It is unclear how effective hybrid learning really is; some students will report to classrooms just one day a week and learn at home the rest of the time, without any live instruction from their teachers, and others will learn remotely even from school buildings.
Some children will not get any in-person instruction under the new system. Some high schools have asked students to stay at home if they are able in order for the schools to offer a full schedule remotely without having to double their teaching staffs. And some children still do not have devices or internet access to log on for remote classes.
There are also pressing safety questions. The city, which has lost more than 20,000 New Yorkers to the virus, saw its daily citywide rate of positive tests increase earlier this week to just over 3 per cent before falling again; Mr de Blasio has said he will require all students to take all their classes remotely if the seven-day rolling average reaches 3 per cent.
Many experts predict that the city will be forced to close classrooms and perhaps entire schools this fall as children and teachers test positive. Schools will temporarily close if there are at least two confirmed cases in separate classrooms.