New York City schools reopened on Monday to scenes of joy, relief and fear as about a million children returned to their classrooms, the most for the first time since the nation’s largest school system was shut down in March 2020 due to the pandemic.
The day, always chaotic even in normal times, started with many families and educators nervous about the coming months as the spread of the highly contagious Delta strain has complicated the city’s pressure to fully reopen schools. .
It represents a pivotal moment in the city’s long recovery from the pandemic, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has a lot at stake in keeping schools open, even as other districts across the country have faced quarantines and other disruptions. Unlike last year, and unlike some other major boroughs, the city didn’t offer most students a remote option.
It’s unclear how many parents will keep their kids at home — at least initially. Last year, 600,000 children were signed up for distance learning, and while the vast majority of those children appeared to have returned to school on Monday, a small group of parents have petitioned the city to resume online classes.
Mr de Blasio said he believed that almost all students would eventually return. Meisha Porter, the school’s chancellor, said last week that the Administration for Children’s Services could become involved if families refuse to return their children after several weeks.
The city’s preliminary attendance rate on Monday was just over 82 percent, but it didn’t include counts of about 350 of the roughly 1,800 schools. That percentage was lower than in previous years, but not dramatic: Day one attendance hovered around 90 percent in recent years before the pandemic.
The mayor said Monday will be remembered as “a game changer, a difference maker, a turning point” for New York City.
Most parents accepted that it was time to go back. In Brownsville, Brooklyn, Debra Gray nervously dropped her 13-year-old son Kamari, who has asthma, from Public School 323. “We have to give this a shot,” she said. “The kids need time with their teachers. But I am concerned.”
To reassure parents that their children are returning to safe classrooms, city officials have implemented policies including randomized testing, vaccine mandates for school staff and quarantines for unvaccinated students. All students, teachers and staff must wear face masks in schools.
But despite all the planning, the online health screening survey parents have to fill out every morning temporarily crashed as hundreds of thousands of people signed up at the same time.
Still, the day passed with a few major hiccups. Students all over the city expressed their excitement and uncertainty about the new year.
In a busted, air-conditioned subway in East New York, Brooklyn, Neriyah Smith, who is 8, said nervous and excited to see her classmates again after learning distance learning all year long last year. “I made a lot of friends before I was on computers,” she said.
In the Bronx, Jazlynn Gonzalez, 14, hugged himself and stared wide-eyed at the students streaming into Herbert H. Lehman High School. “Ooh, I’m so scared,” she said. “I don’t know what to do, like people come up to me and I don’t know if I should say hello, I’m just confused.”
New York, which always starts and ends its school year later than most other districts, is the last major system in the country to reopen. Los Angeles and San Francisco have seen very few outbreaks in the weeks the schools have been open, while other districts that do not require masks or other security measures have seen massive student quarantines. For example, in Mississippi, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, there were 69 outbreaks in schools in the first few weeks of classes.
Mr de Blasio has long said that the city, once an epicenter of the pandemic, would not be able to fully recover without the full restoration of the school system, allowing many parents to return to work. There are indeed encouraging signs: The city’s Delta wave, which was modest compared to much of the rest of the country, appears to be stabilizing just as the school year begins.
Monday’s reopening closed months of planning and anticipation for the third straight school year disrupted by the pandemic.
In May, amid a rapid rollout of vaccines and rapidly declining numbers of virus cases, Mr de Blasio announced that the city would no longer offer distance education to most students. (A few thousand children the city considers medically vulnerable can still study at home.)
His announcement sparked little political resistance in the spring, but his government faced mounting pressure from parents and politicians to reconsider. Some parents said on Twitter that: they kept their kids at home as part of a protest against the decision not to offer a distance learning option, but it is not clear whether that protest will continue beyond this week.
Many of the mostly black and Hispanic families who had their children homeschooled last year have returned to buildings. But some say they would rather have waited until their young children became eligible for the vaccine. Only children 12 and older are currently eligible and younger children are not expected to qualify until later this year at the earliest.
Mr. de Blasio has said the city is not considering mandating shots for eligible children, as Los Angeles has done.
But New York has gone further than most districts in the country by implementing a full vaccine mandate for all of its educators, along with all adults who work in school buildings.
The stakes are huge for the hundreds of thousands of city children who have not seen their classmates and teachers since the start of the pandemic.
In the Bronx, Jazlynn said her first day of school jitters were more than just making the jump from high school to high school: They were about going back to school. “I used to be very talkative to people, but now I keep my distance and now I keep quiet, which makes me more nervous,” she said.
Standing in front of Bayside High School in Queens, a freshman, Nate Hernandez, 14, said he was thrilled to be back.
The online classes made him feel “a little bit sad and also a little bit lonely,” he said, adding, “It was hard to get to know people.” But now Nate said, “I can’t believe I made it to ninth grade, high school. I’m like, ‘I’m going to high school now.’ It’s crazy.”
Nailah Frederick, a 15-year-old sophomore at Bayside, said she had consistently received A grades for her work until the pandemic started.
“I can’t learn online,” she said, adding, “I didn’t think my freshman year of high school would be like this. I missed looking around a classroom and having people around me.”
The mayor has remained determined that the school year will proceed normally, albeit with safety measures. But it’s still possible that a significant school transfer this fall could force many school buildings — or even the entire system — to temporarily close.
City schools saw remarkably little virus transmission in their buildings last year, but most schools had significantly reduced capacity. But even with a slow transmission rate at the end of last year, quarantines were still a common occurrence.
The city’s newly announced quarantine policy will almost certainly lead to frequent short-term class closures, especially for younger children.
In primary schools, where children are too young to be vaccinated, one positive case in a classroom will lead to a 10-day quarantine and a switch to distance learning for that entire classroom.
In middle and high schools, only unvaccinated students need to be quarantined if they’re exposed to someone with the virus, meaning unvaccinated students can have a very different school year than their vaccinated classmates. More than 60 percent of children in New York City who qualify for the vaccine have received at least one dose, but the city doesn’t know how many of those children attend public schools.
While the city’s quarantine protocol is more conservative than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, New York’s school testing plan is less strict than the CDC calls for, alarming some parents and public health experts.
A random sample of 10 percent of unvaccinated students whose families agree to testing are tested every other week at each school; the city tested 20 percent of people in all school buildings every week at the end of last year.
Testing starts this week. Asked Monday about the city’s testing protocols, Mr de Blasio said schools could ramp up testing if necessary.
The city’s modest testing program has made many educators uncomfortable, including the thousands of teachers who received medical exemptions to work remotely last year. But on Monday, all the teachers were back in school buildings.
Justin Chapura, who teaches English as a second language at Bronx River High School, said he was nervous and had trouble sleeping before school started. But he was thrilled to see students he hadn’t seen since March 2020 — some of whom had gone through major growth spurts.
“A million things are going through my head: have I got everything ready yet?” said Mr. Chapura. “Do I have all my copies made? What is my first lesson? What is my second class? Where’s my lunch? What is going on? Do I have my coffee? I pre-ordered my coffee in the taxi on my way here – nothing will mess me up today.’
Emma Goldberg, Chelsia Rose Marcius and Nate Schweber reported.