NYC gears up for another first day of classes during an uncertain school year

After two last-minute delays to the start of in-person learning, Daniela Jampel is relieved her daughter will head to her Manhattan school Tuesday for her first day of first grade that won’t take place on a computer screen.

“She thinks tomorrow is going to be the best day of her life, because she is so excited to go back,” said Jampel. “It’s kind of heartbreaking. She’s like, ‘I never realized how lucky I was to have school.’”

It has been a school year of multiple “first” days, with a series of abrupt delays and changing plans. Pre-K students and those with complex disabilities were back in buildings last week, and remote learning has been underway since mid-September.

This week, New York City continues reopening school buildings by phasing students in by grade level. Children in K-5 and K-8 schools are heading back to classrooms for the first time since the coronavirus forced the country’s largest school system into lockdown. High schools, middle schools, and others begin to return on Thursday.

New York City, which enrolls more than 1 million students, is the largest school district to reopen for in-person instruction. Stacks of evidence suggest that students already at a disadvantage have the most to lose while buildings remain shuttered, and public health experts have said the low rate of transmission of the coronavirus puts the city in a good position to reopen.

But the uncertainty looming over the school year remains immense. Will there be enough teachers to staff classrooms? The principals union has suggested not, and cast a vote of “no confidence” in the mayor and chancellor this weekend. Will the rate of positive coronavirus cases remain low enough to keep buildings open? A troubling rise in some neighborhoods could eventually threaten that. Will parents trust their children to the city’s safety protocols? On Monday, the number of students choosing to stay home and learn remotely full-time continued an upward climb, reaching 48%. (Those students have the option of returning to school buildings at certain points during the year.)

Jampel has had to temper her daughter’s expectations, shopping for a back-to-school outfit that matches her panda bear mask while staying skeptical the first day of classes would finally come.

“I’m not convinced, until I physically drop my daughter off, that we’re reopening,” she said.

The city embraced a hybrid model to allow for socially distanced classrooms, with a fraction of students in classrooms for in-person learning at least one day a week and learning online the rest of the days.

While the hybrid model requires extra staff since classes must be smaller, an agreement between the city and the teachers union exacerbated the crunch. In order to avoid overwhelming educators, schools must provide three sets of teachers: one for students learning in person, one to teach the students on the days they aren’t in the building, and another for those learning virtually full-time.

On Friday, the city gave schools wiggle room to work around those requirements, and allowed more teachers to work from home. Already, 23% of teachers have accommodations to work remotely because they are at high risk of complications from the coronavirus. The new agreement sent principals back to the drawing board to recreate their schedules.

The city has vowed to send 4,500 additional teachers into school buildings, and the mayor promised on Friday that every school would have the staff they need to reopen. But the principals union has thrown that into question, saying that as of Friday, there were more than 1,200 teachers needed at 200 elementary schools.

“I’m not confident right now that everyone has the teachers they need,” said principals union President Mark Cannizzaro. Still, he promised that principals would take care of every child that comes through the door.

To ease the staffing problem, the city backpedaled on a requirement for schools to provide daily live instruction to students in the hybrid model on the days they were at home, angering families who had counted on their children interacting with teachers at least once a day.

The mayor’s reopening plans have also bumped against deep distrust from some educators and families who don’t feel it is safe to return to buildings. The city and state are keeping an eye on a cluster of Brooklyn neighborhoods where COVID cases are on the rise, which could have implications for returning to school. De Blasio has set a strict threshold requiring cases to stay below 3% over a seven-day average to keep schools open.

On Monday, the citywide rate crept up to 1.93%. In Gravesend, it was 6.75%. In Midwood, it was 5.53%.

Sarah Yorra teaches students who are learning English as a new language at a large high school in Brooklyn’s District 20, which is wedged between neighborhoods that have become coronavirus hotspots.

She is alarmed at the rising numbers and recently led a protest to demand more testing in the community. She has taken it upon herself to spread the word at the local bodega about pop-up sites. Last week, a mobile van came to her school and diagnosed one positive case among staffers, Yorra said.

But she feels the city should be doing additional outreach to convince more people to get tested, as well as expand the availability of testing in the neighborhood. She wants schools in areas where rates are ticking upwards to remain all-remote. In a community where many families rely on schools for everything from applying to colleges to filling out tax forms and finding a job, Yorra worries that reopening downplays the risk of COVID in the neighborhood.

“I feel really torn about going back to a school building because, by being there and being open, we’re sending a message that it’s OK,” she said. “Everything is fine in the city as a whole, but right here, it’s not so fine.”

Families also have grown increasingly wary. Officials have also struggled to get free child care centers open to serve kids on their remote learning days. The constant delays and last-minute announcements have put working families in a bind.

“It’s the working parents who are suffering,” said Kimberly Wong, a mom in Sunnyside, Queens, whose son will start kindergarten on Tuesday.

Remote kindergarten has been hard on the family. Her son needs help with the simplest of tasks, like muting or unmuting the sound on his class video chats. And despite “engaging” teachers, her son is simply not interested in sitting in front of a computer screen. She’s looking forward to the first day of in-person school and wishes it would have come sooner.

“They had months to plan for this,” she said, referring to city leaders. “It’s totally a disaster and it feels like everyone is trying to do their best. But I think it could have been avoided, or at least managed.”

This article was originally published on NYC gears up for another first day of classes during an uncertain school year

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