But after two delays, a chaotic start to remote instruction and protests from teachers and principals, only the most optimistic of parents, teachers and elected officials are expecting a smooth reopening.
So far, de Blasio’s track record on schools has been rife with missteps and criticism. He stubbornly refused to close schools in March despite a cacophony of demands to send kids and teachers home. Public health experts have speculated the delay exacerbated an already uncontrolled spread. Union leaders accused the city of hiding infections among teachers which, during the first wave, took the lives of at least 61 school employees.
As remote learning began, about a quarter of the city’s 1.1 million students did not have internet access or modern computers. And as the city faced a September deadline to reopen, teachers and parents said the city left planning to the last minute, made drastic changes on the fly, failed to communicate and ignored the advice of a task force de Blasio created to manage reopening.
Now the mayor faces an even bigger test with in-person classes.
“If it works out, it changes his whole legacy,” said Rebecca Katz, a former political adviser to the mayor and a public school parent of two.
“If it does not work out, it just adds to his current narrative,” she said. “The best thing de Blasio has going for him right now is low expectations. I am hopeful for all our children’s sake that he can beat them.”
At stake is the educational success or failure of 1.1 million public school students — who suffered serious setbacks, especially among poor students, in the spring when education went all-online — the city’s delicate public health progress, and its ability to revive a battered economy where many workers depend on having schools to send their kids to.
Between Tuesday’s reopening of elementary and K-8 schools and the opening of middle and high schools planned for Thursday, half a million students are returning to school this week, de Blasio said.
But it’s unclear how long the reopening will last: The city plans to close its schools if its coronavirus infection rate hits 3 percent based on a seven-day average. On Tuesday, just as schools were opening their doors, the one-day rate topped 3 percent for the first time in nearly four months, as the city grapples with virus clusters in neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens.
“We are going to continue moving forward, because nothing helps a child as much as being in the presence of an educator and other caring adults. And that can only happen in our school buildings,” de Blasio told reporters. “All of this is unprecedented. All of this is incredibly difficult and complex. Everyone is doing their best.”
Nearly half of families have opted out of in-person classes and chosen to study online only, a number that has grown steadily over the last few weeks. Those who do attend in person will only go in one to three days a week, learning online on other days in order to keep classes small and allow for social distancing. Classrooms that typically held as many as 30 students will serve just nine to 12, with desks placed six feet apart.
Islah Tauheed, a teacher at P.S. 567 Linden Tree Elementary School in the Bronx, said she could “hear the smile in their voices” as masked children arrived for school Tuesday morning — yet many were jolted to find that the school they were returning to was nothing like the one they left more than six months ago.
“For kids who haven’t been there since March and they really were thinking, ‘I’m gonna go back and be with my friends,’” she said. “So many times I had to tell kids, ‘No, no, no, you can’t sit by her.’”
Manhattan dad Kyong Kim said the emails he has received outlining detailed new protocols from staff at Manhattan’s P.S. 15 convinced him his 4-year-old son would be in good hands. “We feel it’s safe,” he said.
The hybrid learning model has led to a major teacher shortage, because the city agreed to have separate teachers lead in-person and online classes. That shortage forced de Blasio to delay the first day of in-person school from Sept. 21 — after earlier delaying it from Sept. 10 to avert a teachers strike over safety fears.
The city has agreed to bring on 4,500 more teachers — but acknowledges even that won’t be enough to staff high schools, and officials refuse to say how many instructors will ultimately be needed.
On Sunday, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators took a vote of no confidence in de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza — and called for the state to take control of the reopening plan. The vote followed another 11th-hour deal allowing more teachers to work from home.
The ongoing staffing problems have also led the city to reverse course and tell parents their kids may not get any live instruction on days they’re studying at home, and to several high schools deciding that all instruction will be online — with even students who are physically at school taking their classes on a laptop or iPad.
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