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In Major Test, New York City Schools Reopen for Nearly 1 Million Students

Alex Zimmerman, Chalkbeat New York

This story was originally published Sep 13, 7:02am EDT by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here:

For the first time since March 2020, New York City throws open its classroom doors on Monday to all of its public school students, a moment filled with a mix of relief and trepidation as the coronavirus looms over a third school year. 

Most of the district’s nearly 1 million students have not set foot in a classroom in almost 550 days, with more than 60% opting for fully remote instruction last school year. This year, after initially suggesting a remote option would likely be available, Mayor Bill de Blasio reversed course and said all students would be required to attend school in-person, with some exemptions for students with specific medical issues.

“The first day of school in New York City is going to be one of the most powerful moments since COVID began,” de Blasio said last week. “This is going to be a moment where we come back, because every single school child is coming back to school on Monday, Sept. 13. This is going to be one of those game-changer days, one of these days that we’ll remember when we turn the corner on COVID.”

The return to school this fall — with some classrooms at full capacity and social distancing required only “where possible” — is the biggest test yet of de Blasio’s promise that the nation’s largest school system can reopen safely. 

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Many families said they were glad to send their children back to school buildings, as more employers are requiring in-person work and remote learning has often been difficult for parents and students to manage. Physical classrooms promise more academic support, a chance to socialize, and access to special education services that are difficult to provide remotely.

Others, fearful of the more contagious delta variant and elevated infection rates, returned to school with feelings of anxiety and frustration. Some planned to boycott the first day of school in protest of the city’s decision to require in-person attendance.

City officials have vowed to protect students and educators with a mix of safety measures, including universal masking, ventilation improvements, and two air purifiers in every room. In a last-minute directive, parents or other visitors who want to enter school buildings are required to show proof of at least one vaccine dose, education department officials said, though school staff will not be required to be vaccinated until Sept. 27. Parents of 3- or 4-year-olds attending pre-K will be allowed to drop their children off in classrooms without showing proof on the first day of school.

As the city has rolled out safety procedures, there has been intense debate about whether they are protective enough — or even too aggressive. Some educators and families remain concerned about whether classrooms will be adequately ventilated and worry about lunch periods where students will congregate unmasked.

Some have also criticized the decision to significantly scale back random coronavirus testing in schools, with only 10% of unvaccinated students and staff tested every other week (and with no requirement that students consent to testing). 

In other areas, some parents and observers have criticized the city for being too cautious, especially when it comes to forcing students to quarantine when students or staff test positive.

Unlike last year, there is no specific number of positive cases that will force a school building to shut down, but a single virus case can shutter elementary school classrooms, a rule that is more conservative than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. Vaccinated middle and high school students will not be forced to quarantine as long as they are not experiencing symptoms.

The city’s charter schools offer an early glimpse of how common classroom closures could be, even if infection rates don’t rise. At Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network, 22% of classrooms have been forced to temporarily close since the network reopened to students on Aug. 2. Overall, hundreds of charter school classrooms across the city have already shuttered.

When classrooms shut down, elementary school students will shift to remote learning. Middle and high school students, whose classrooms may be fractured with some vaccinated students learning in-person, will be entitled to “office hours” on the days they’re at home.

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Still, there are unanswered questions that could shape the coming school year. Although school staff are required to be vaccinated by Sept. 27, a significant minority of educators have yet to receive their first dose. An arbitration decision announced Friday paves the way for teachers to seek some medical and religious exemptions to the mandate with the city providing non-classroom assignments. Others who refuse to be vaccinated will be removed from the city’s payroll. It’s unclear if there will be enough substitutes to fill in the gaps.

It’s also unclear when vaccines could be approved for students under age 12 who represent the majority of the city’s students but are currently ineligible. That vaccine approval could further reduce the situations in which students are required to quarantine.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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