New York was the primary main college district to reopen. That is what occurred.
For Julie Zuckerman, an elementary school principal in Manhattan, last summer was a never-ending day of fear and confusion over New York’s plan to resume personal classes. But things have changed in the months since the classrooms opened in September.
The school’s teachers, Public School 513 in Washington Heights, appear to be more comfortable, and some say they’d love to be in their classrooms even after the building closes due to coronavirus cases. Parents seem to be more confident too: around half of the students are in the building most days, compared with less than a third in September.
Ms. Zuckerman expects more children to return this spring.
“The people have made their peace. They are not in crisis the same way, ”she said. “I think there is a huge difference between day and night between what happened last spring and what happened this year.”
New York’s quest to become the first major school district in the country to reopen classrooms last fall was a tall and risky experiment. There were some misunderstandings, logistical stumbling blocks and disruptions – especially when classrooms and school buildings are often closed due to virus cases.
In interviews, parents, teachers, school principals and trade union leaders also gave cause for optimism in the middle of the school year. The transmission of coronavirus at school was very low and there was broad consensus that children have benefited from being in classrooms.
“Having the children here is so much better for them, for everyone,” said Ms. Zuckerman.
The strength of the plan will be retested in the coming weeks, as approximately 62,000 middle school students will return to the classrooms for the first time since November. New York also offers the clearest preview in the US of what other metropolitan areas – especially Chicago, where more schools are opening next month – can expect as they near reopening of classrooms after nearly a year of distance learning.
Despite President Biden’s efforts to reopen more schools this spring, some counties – including Los Angeles, the second largest system in the country – have no plans to reopen this school year at all. On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said schools should open as soon as possible, especially for young children. The CDC found that teacher vaccines are not a requirement for reopening, a finding that has so far been confirmed in New York’s safety data.
The guidelines came as teacher unions across the country pushed back on reopening plans.
Districts that reopen to college students in the coming weeks and months will likely find that this is only a first step. New Yorkers struggle to cope with the frequent learning disruptions – and parenting schedules – that arise when virus cases are detected in students or staff and distance learning is forced into classrooms and entire school buildings.
The city requires schools to close for up to 10 days if two unrelated positive cases are confirmed in a building. Individual classrooms close when one or more positive cases are detected.
The number of closed classrooms and schools has increased significantly in recent weeks as test positivity rates have remained high across the city and weekly tests have increased at the school.
Between January 4th and Wednesday, 580 of 1,052 open school buildings closed for up to two weeks. Fewer than 400 school buildings were not closed in the new year.
Ms. Zuckerman said that her school was only open for about 10 personal days in 2021, for example.
The rule was developed at a time when it was unclear whether Mayor Bill de Blasio had the political support for schools reopening and when there was much less evidence that schools could reopen safely. The protocol was part of a package of safety measures agreed with union leaders that summer that allowed New York City to open its schools in the first place.
Mr de Blasio said earlier this month that he would “re-evaluate” the two-case rule, despite city officials saying it was highly unlikely that security measures would change before the middle schools reopen.
For parents of elementary school children, the reopening has sparked a roller coaster ride of emotions: despair over the limits of distance learning; Joy of seeing their children in classrooms again; and frustration over the mess caused by closings.
Apr. 13, 2021, 6:10 p.m. ET
Last month, for example, Hien Sosa finally received word that her son might soon be returning full-time to his first grade classroom in East Elmhurst, Queens.
“I thought, wow, I feel like I just won the lottery,” recalled Ms. Sosa, a hospital nurse. She and her husband, a police officer, could not stay home on days when their son was studying remotely. Ms. Sosa’s mother, who helps with childcare, speaks limited English and has problems monitoring her grandson’s classes. Ms. Sosa said she felt “ready to give up”.
But her relief at the new schedule was short-lived. Just days after her son attended school five days a week, Ms. Sosa learned that the school would be closed for ten days because two people in the building tested positive.
He returned a few days ago and comes home happy at the end of the day. “I know he gets real learning, just a normal school day like he always did,” said Ms. Sosa. But she said she felt she had time before the school closed again.
As closings have increased, some parents have urged the city to change the rule. However, the city’s influential teachers’ union has vigorously protested any change, stating that schools are safe due in part to the conservative threshold for closings.
However, the union, the United Federation of Teachers, could face increasing pressure to accept changes to the rule as more teachers are vaccinated against the coronavirus. According to a union spokeswoman, the union directly initiated vaccination of around 15,500 educators, while many other teachers received their shots through regular channels.
Even before vaccines hit New York, the city’s schools hadn’t seen high transmission. The average positivity rate of tests in city schools between October and last Thursday was 0.55 percent. The seven-day city-wide average is around 8 percent.
The statistics are explained in part by the random weekly testing of asymptomatic students and staff, resulting in lower rates than citywide testing of people who show symptoms or think they may be exposed to the virus.
But school statistics also confirm the belief, widely held by health professionals, that classrooms can be relatively safe when educators enforce safety measures such as wearing masks and social distancing that are required in urban schools.
After Mr de Blasio closed the entire system in mid-November due to increasing virus cases, he reopened classrooms only for children with complex disabilities and elementary school students in December. He recently announced that middle schools would reopen on February 25th.
City officials say most middle schools can accept large numbers of students five days a week. About 500 of the 878 elementary schools and schools for children with disabilities that are already open serve most students full-time.
It is not clear whether the city high schools will reopen this school year.
Once both elementary and middle schools are open, up to 250,000 of the city’s roughly one million students can return to the classrooms. Nevertheless, the vast majority of city families – around 70 percent – have decided to let their children study from home for the rest of the school year. White students, who are a minority of the overall system, are overrepresented in open classrooms.
Chloe Davis, a teacher in the Parkchester division of the Bronx, said her elementary school has closed several times since Thanksgiving. This prompted some families to switch to distance learning to restore consistency.
“We haven’t found a rhythm at all,” she said. Ms. Davis’ school shares a building with two others, and if two students test positive in one of the three schools, the entire building is closed.
The stream of closings is especially frustrating for working parents like Elisa Muñiz, a pediatrician and single mom of a second grader in Washington Heights. Ms. Muñiz said her son, who is receiving special education, has been in his classroom less than 30 days since September.
“I can’t tell you how many times the school has closed. It’s a ton, ”she said. “It doesn’t just interfere with domestic life. I am someone with a responsibility to be personally at work. It requires a lot more flexibility than we can sometimes have. “
Ms. Muñiz has watched her son, an only child, thrive on the days he is in the classroom with his friends. But he’s easily distracted and restless when he goes back to online learning. She wished she could ask the mayor, “How can we help the children who are not making progress?”
New York teachers say they work harder than at any other point in their careers to answer that question.
Tiffany Koo, who teaches at an East Village elementary school, decided last year to take sole responsibility for a group of students studying online and another person in person due to a staff shortage at her school. She streams her lessons live from her classroom every day for all students to participate, and spends nights and weekends working on lesson plans.
“I never regret it, but it was incredibly chaotic and difficult at times,” she said of her schedule. “I take it every day.”
Some days are more exhausting than others. About two weeks ago, Ms. Koo learned that two of her students had the virus. “That was a jolt to the system,” she said. “We were all so exhausted that we just left without stopping to realize that the risk was still there.”
On some days Ms. Koo is not sure whether the compromises in the reopening are worthwhile. Even so, she understands why so many parents and students want classrooms to be fully open as soon as possible. She just asks New Yorkers to be patient.
“We all wish it was different,” she said. “Let’s just be nice to each other. We all try to do the best we can. “
Juliana Kim contributed to the coverage.