New York City on Tuesday marked a major milestone in its halting effort to reopen public schools for in-person learning, with elementary schools welcoming roughly 300,000 students to classrooms for a school year that will be unlike any other.
For most of the students, it was the first time they had entered classrooms since the pandemic forced the system to shut down in March.
The vast majority of New York’s 1.1 million students began the school year remotely last week, while about 90,000 pre-K students and children with advanced disabilities reported to classrooms. Hundreds of thousands more children, including middle and high school students, are expected to report to schools by the end of this week.
Their return comes as the city faces an uptick in the rate of positive coronavirus tests, driven largely by clusters of cases in Brooklyn and Queens.
Tuesday morning provided another glimpse of how the pandemic has upended the rituals of schools. In Manhattan, at Public School 46 in Washington Heights, a small group of masked children stood in line six feet apart from one another other, on yellow pieces of tape on the sidewalk.
“If your temperature is more than 99 degrees, you can’t go into the building,” said Cynthia Turnquest-Jones, a librarian who volunteered to help get students inside, as she scanned the back of students’ hands with a digital thermometer.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has described physically reopening schools as a moral imperative, but has stumbled in his push to get classrooms open. The mayor has twice delayed the start of in-person classes over safety concerns and a staffing shortage that the city is still scrambling to fully resolve.
A flurry of last-minute changes to instructional plans have frustrated many educators and parents, and some families have said they could not be convinced that schools would actually reopen until they dropped their children off at the front door. Nearly half of the system’s students have opted to continue taking all their classes remotely through at least November.
On Sunday, the union representing the city’s principals said it had lost faith in Mr. de Blasio’s ability to reopen schools, and called on the state to take over the effort. Though the mayor has faced considerable political opposition to reopening, he has still succeeded in bringing more children back into classrooms so far than any other large district in the country.
New York has among the lowest coronavirus test positivity rates of any big city in America, setting the stage for reopening.
But worrisome virus clusters have emerged in recent days, which has begun to edge the city’s positivity rate slightly upward. Mr. de Blasio has said he would shut down the entire public school system — the largest in the country — if the city’s average test positivity rate exceeds 3 percent. The city could reach that threshold in just a few weeks if the rate continues to tick up. It is not clear how long schools would remain closed if they shutter.
Public health experts have said cases in schools are inevitable and not necessarily cause for alarm if they are detected quickly. The city set up a “situation room” to monitor positive cases in schools after facing criticism from teachers who said the city mishandled efforts to trace cases in early September, when educators returned to school buildings to prepare for the new year.
Just two confirmed cases in different classrooms could shutter that school for up to two weeks while officials search for the source of the outbreak, meaning that many classrooms and some school buildings are likely to close temporarily in the coming days and weeks.
Teachers, principals and custodians have spent weeks preparing schools for the age of social distancing, and children will find their classrooms and hallways looking very different from how they left them on March 13.
Classrooms that once held about 30 children may now accommodate nine. All desks will be spaced six feet apart, and students will be asked to stand on decals in common spaces to avoid crowding. Most students will have lunch in their classrooms, rather than in cafeterias, and some students will take classes outside, in their schoolyards or on nearby streets and sidewalks.
Amanda Rosa contributed reporting.
The post Children Return to Elementary Schools, in Milestone for N.Y.C. appeared first on New York Times.