Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Sunday that he would reopen public elementary schools, abruptly shifting policy in the face of widespread criticism that New York City was placing more of a priority on economic activities like indoor dining than the well-being of its children.
Mr. de Blasio said that middle and high schools would remain closed, but he also signaled that he would overhaul how the city manages schools during the pandemic, which has forced millions of children in the United States out of schools and is widely perceived to have done significant damage to their education and mental health.
The mayor said the city would abandon a 3 percent test positivity threshold that it had adopted for closing the school system, the largest in the country, with 1.1 million children. And he said the system would aim to give most parents the option of sending their children to school five days a week, which would effectively end the so-called hybrid learning system.
Students can return only if they have already signed up for in-person learning, meaning fewer than 335,000 of the city’s schoolchildren, or roughly a third, are even eligible.
Children in pre-K and elementary school can return starting Dec. 7. Mr. de Blasio also announced that students with the most complex disabilities can return on Dec. 10.
Starting in the summer, Mr. de Blasio sought to make New York the first big city in the country to fully reopen its public school system. After a series of logistical and political problems forced the mayor to twice delay the start of in-person classes, the city welcomed hundreds of thousands of children back into classrooms about two months ago.
Reopening, despite its many issues, was seen as a major milestone in the city’s long path to recovery. But less than eight weeks after school buildings reopened, Mr. de Blasio on Nov. 18 again shut schools down as a second wave of the outbreak threatened the city.
Still, the number of cases in the school system itself remained very low, so Mr. de Blasio’s decision became a flash point in a broader debate throughout the country and the world over what should be closed during the pandemic. Officials have wrestled with whether to keep classrooms open while forcing restaurants and bars, which are far more likely to spread the virus, to shut their doors.
Mr. de Blasio’s announcement on Sunday reflects a stark departure from the city’s original approach to managing the schools during the outbreak.
The new blueprint represents the city’s second shot at reopening, after the first attempt was plagued by problems and his threshold to close schools was roundly criticized by parents, politicians and public health experts.
Instead of using a specific metric to close schools, the city will now closely monitor the number of classrooms and schools that close because of multiple confirmed virus cases.
And the mayor had long insisted that the entire public school system should reopen, and that every student, from kindergarten through 12th grade, should have the option of learning in person.
Now, the nation’s largest public school district will operate more like other systems across the country that have reopened, by offering classroom instruction only to young children and students with disabilities.
Since Mr. de Blasio first announced his plan to reopen schools in July, mounting evidence has shown that elementary schools in particular can be relatively safe, as long as schools follow strict safety protocols.
New York’s schools had extremely low test positivity rates during the roughly eight weeks they were open this fall, and there was wide agreement from everyone from the president of the teachers’ union to the mayor’s top public health officials that schools were safer than they had anticipated.
When school buildings reopen, the city will significantly increase its random testing in schools: rather than testing a sampling of students and staff in each school building once a month, the city will conduct tests weekly. Students will not be allowed to attend school in person unless they have signed consent forms from their parents, allowing them to be tested.