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New York schools reopen with joy and anxiety on the first day of “Game Changer”

Schools in New York City reopened on Monday in scenes of joy, relief and anxiety, as an estimated one million children returned to their classrooms, most for the first time since the closure of the country’s largest school system in March 2020 due to the pandemic.

The day, still chaotic even in normal times, began with many families and educators nervous about the next few months as the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant compounded the city’s pressure to fully reopen schools.

This represents a pivotal moment in the city’s long recovery from the pandemic, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has a lot to gain from keeping schools open, even as other districts across the country have faced quarantines and drought. other disturbances. Unlike last year, and unlike some other large urban neighborhoods, the city did not offer a distance option for most students.

It is not known how many parents will keep their children at home, at least initially. Last year, 600,000 children signed up for distance learning, and while the vast majority of those children appeared to have returned to school on Monday, a small group of parents called on the city to resume classes. in line.

Mr de Blasio said he believed almost all of the students would return eventually. Meisha Porter, the chancellor of schools, said last week that the Children’s Services Administration could step in if families refused to send their children away after several weeks.

The city’s preliminary attendance rate on Monday was just over 82 percent, but did not include counts of about 350 out of about 1,800 schools. This rate was lower than in previous years, but not dramatically: first-day attendance in the last pre-pandemic years has hovered around 90%.

The mayor said Monday will be remembered as “a game changer, a difference maker, a turnaround day” for New York City.

Most parents accepted that it was time to go home. In Brownsville, Brooklyn, Debra Gray nervously dropped off her 13-year-old son, Kamari, who has asthma, at 323 Public School. “We have to give this a chance,” she said. “Children need time with their teachers. But I am worried.

To reassure parents that their children will be returning to safe classrooms, city officials have put in place policies that include random testing, vaccination warrants for school staff, and quarantines for unvaccinated students.

But despite all the planning, the online health screening survey parents are required to complete each morning has temporarily crashed as hundreds of thousands of people have logged in simultaneously.

However, the day passed with few major hitches. Students across town have expressed their excitement and uncertainty about the New Year.

In a subway car with broken air conditioning in East New York, Brooklyn, Neriyah Smith, 8, said she was nervous and excited to see her classmates again after learning all the way from a distance. ‘last year. “I made a lot of friends before I got to computers,” she said.

In the Bronx, 14-year-old Jazlynn Gonzalez hugged and stared wide-eyed at the students flocking to Herbert H. Lehman High School. “Ooh, I’m so scared,” she said. “I don’t know what to do, as people come up to me and I don’t know if I should say hello, I’m just confused.”

New York, which begins and always finishes its school year later than most other districts, is the latest major system in the country to reopen. Los Angeles and San Francisco have seen very few outbreaks in the weeks that schools have been opened, while other districts that do not require masks or other safety measures have seen massive quarantines of students. In Mississippi, for example, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, there were 69 outbreaks in schools in the first few weeks of class.

Mr de Blasio has long claimed that the city, once the epicenter of the pandemic, could not fully recover without the complete restoration of its school system, which will allow many parents to return to work. There are indeed encouraging signs: The city’s Delta wave, which was modest compared to much of the rest of the country, appears to be leveling off just at the start of the school year.

Monday’s reopening capped months of planning and anticipation for the third consecutive school year disrupted by the pandemic.

In May, amid a rapid vaccine rollout and a rapid decline in the number of virus cases, Mr de Blasio announced that the city would no longer offer distance education to most students. (A few thousand children the city considers medically vulnerable will still be able to learn from home.)

His announcement met little political resistance in the spring, but his administration faced increasing pressure from parents and politicians to reconsider. Some parents have said on Twitter that they kept their children at home Monday as part of a protest against the decision not to offer a distance learning option, but it is not clear whether that protest will last beyond this week.

Most of the mostly black and Latino families who allowed their children to learn at home last year have returned to the buildings. But some say they would have preferred to wait until at least their young children were eligible for the vaccine. Only children 12 and older are currently eligible, and it is expected that younger children will not be eligible until later this year at the earliest.

Mr de Blasio said the city is not considering shooting eligible children, as Los Angeles has.

But New York has gone further than most districts across the country in implementing a comprehensive immunization mandate for all of its educators, as well as all adults who work in school buildings.

The stakes are high for the hundreds of thousands of children in the city who have not seen their classmates and teachers since the start of the pandemic.

In the Bronx, Jazlynn said her nervousness from the first day of school was about more than moving from middle school to high school – it was about relearning how to go to school. “I used to be very chatty with people, but now I keep my distance and stay silent now, which is what makes me more nervous,” she said.

Standing outside Bayside High School in Queens, freshman Nate Hernandez, 14, said he was delighted to be back.

The online classes made him feel “a little sad and a little lonely too,” he said, adding: “It was hard to get to know people.” But now Nate said, “I can’t believe I made ninth grade, high school. I’m like ‘I’m going to high school now.’ It’s crazy.”

Nailah Frederick, a 15-year-old sophomore at Bayside, said she regularly received A grades for her work until the start of the pandemic.

“I can’t learn online,” she said, adding, “I didn’t think my freshman year of high school would be like this. I missed looking around a classroom and have people around me.

The mayor remained committed to the school year going smoothly, but with security measures in place. But it’s still possible that a major transmission to school this fall could force many school buildings – if not the entire system – to temporarily close.

Schools in the city experienced remarkably low transmission of the virus in their buildings last year, but most schools had significantly reduced capacity. Yet even with a low rate of transmission at the end of last year, quarantines were still commonplace.

The city’s recently announced quarantine policy will almost certainly result in frequent short-term classroom closures, especially for young children.

In elementary schools, where children are still too young to be vaccinated, a positive case in a classroom will result in a 10-day quarantine and a switch to distance learning, for the whole class.

In middle and high schools, only unvaccinated students will need to be quarantined if exposed to someone infected with the virus, meaning unvaccinated students could have a much different school year than their fellow students. vaccinated class. More than 60 percent of New York City children eligible for the vaccine have received at least one dose, but the city does not know how many of those children attend its public schools.

While the city’s quarantine protocol is more conservative than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, New York’s school testing plan is less stringent than the CDC asks, alarming some parents and public health experts. .

A 10 percent random sample of unvaccinated students whose families consent to the test will be tested in each school every two weeks; the city was testing 20% ​​of people in all school buildings every week at the end of last year.

Testing will begin this week. Asked about the city’s testing protocols on Monday, Mr de Blasio said schools can increase testing if necessary.

The city’s modest testing program has made many educators uncomfortable, including the thousands of teachers who received medical exemptions to work remotely last year. But on Monday, all the educators were back in the school buildings.

Justin Chapura, who teaches English as a Second Language at Bronx River High School, said he was nervous and had trouble sleeping before school started. But he was delighted to see students he hadn’t seen since March 2020 – some of whom had experienced major growth spurts.

“There are a million things going through my mind: is everything ready? Said Mr. Chapura. “Are all my copies made?” What’s my first class? What is my second class? Where’s my lunch? What is happening? Do I have my coffee? I pre-ordered my coffee in the cab on my way here – nothing is going to screw me up today.

Emma Goldberg, Chelsia Rose Marcius and Nate Schweber contributed reporting.

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