New York City’s classrooms reopened Monday to about a million children, most of whom returned for the first time since the United States’ largest school system closed in March 2020.
As the city reopened schools for part-time education last fall, the vast majority of students chose to continue learning remotely. But with no remote option available to nearly all parents, classrooms will be full for the first time in a year and a half.
For months, Mayor Bill de Blasio had predicted that the first day of school would be a triumphant coda in New York City’s long recovery from the pandemic. But the spread of the highly contagious Delta strain has complicated pressure from the city to fully reopen schools, and many families and educators are concerned about what the coming months will bring.
At a press conference on Monday morning, Mr. De Blasio asked parents to put their concerns aside and focus on refocusing their children on personal learning. “I now appeal to all parents,” he said. “Work beyond the fear, move your children forward.”
Earlier in the day, Tiffany Smith, 37, was on the subway taking her 8-year-old daughter, Neriyah, and 4-year-old son, Khyree, to their school and daycare center in East New York, Brooklyn, for the first time in 18 months. .
Ms. Smith said they both had trouble concentrating when they couldn’t be around their teachers and classmates. “Having personal contact helps them with their communication skills,” she said.
She said she trained her children to keep their masks on and was confident in the school’s measures to keep their distance. “They have a lot of safety protocols in place,” said Ms. Smith.
On the other side of town, in Queens, incoming freshmen lined up outside Bayside High School to get their first glimpse of their new school.
Nate Hernandez, 14, a freshman from Jamaica, Queens, boarded the Q31 bus with his mother at 6am on Monday to make sure he wouldn’t be late. Nate, who learned completely remotely during his senior year of high school, said online classes made him “a little bit sad and also a little bit lonely,” he said of distance learning. “It was hard to get to know people.”
He hopes the new school will provide a fresh start.
“I can’t believe I made it to ninth grade, high school,” he said. “I’m like, ‘I’m going to high school now.’ It’s crazy.”
The first day of school in a system as large as New York’s can be chaotic even in normal times. This year it is anything but. Even before the schools opened their doors on Monday morning, the city was busy solving the first problem of the new school year: parents tried to log in at the same time.
That led to long lines outside some schools as educators were forced to complete their own screenings of how each child was feeling that morning.
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 deems medically vulnerable can still learn from home.) His announcement sparked little political resistance in the spring, but his administration faced mounting pressure from parents and politicians to reconsider.
About 600,000 families, most of them black and Hispanic, had their children homeschooled last year. While parents are much more receptive to schools reopening this year, some say they want to at least wait until their young children are eligible for the vaccine. Only children 12 years and older are currently eligible and younger children will not join until later in the year at the earliest.
Mr de Blasio has admitted that he does not expect all the children to return this week, as some parents have informed their principals that they would like to wait a few days or even weeks to see how the reopening goes.
Emma Goldberg and Chelsea Rose Marcius reporting contributed.