NEW YORK — In September of 2020, New York City’s public schools faced the biggest challenge in their recent history.
Reopening the nation’s largest school system safely for students and staff amid a pandemic, after shutting down schools in March to move students to remote learning.
Coronavirus has taken the lives of 100 school staff members with more than 10,000 positive cases.
The reopening process was debated among teachers, contested by parents and the heated topic of many press conferences with city and union leaders.
Mayor Bill de Blasio delayed the start of school for in-person learning over and over, with a staggered approach by grade — starting with elementary schools Sept. 29, followed by middle and high schools Oct. 1. But to get to that point, the union and the city agreed on a series of safety protocols, including a ventilation overhaul of all 1,800 school buildings. That process was heavily criticized after toilet paper on a stick was used to check air flow out of the vents.
Classrooms deemed unsafe were taken out of service. Desks were socially distanced six feet apart, with a maximum of 11 students and staff in each classroom. PPE was given to all school staff and everyone in the buildings was told to wear a mask each day, with a break for lunch.
Students faced random, monthly coronavirus testing. One positive case would shut down a classroom. Two unrelated positives would shut down a school building for a 10-day quarantine.
That last policy caused a stir among some parents, who were struggling with the disruption of closing schools on a whim.
However, contrary to the city’s belief that students wanted in-person learning, 70% of the public school population chose not to return to the classroom, opting for remote learning in 2020-21.
The majority of families that chose stay-at-home learning were the same communities hit hardest by the pandemic, highlighting educational inequalities in the city.
New York City’s students are 40.6% Hispanic, 25.5% Black, 16.2% Asian and 15.1% white. However, 12,000 more white children returned to classrooms than Black students. The majority of Asian students also chose remote learning, while Latino students returned at a proportional rate.
“The device issue is far from over,” admitted City Councilmember Mark Treyger. “We still have thousands of children sharing devices, when the promise was one device per child.”
Over the course of a year, the city did little to improve virtual learning. Attendance hit record lows and enrollment dropped below one million students.
Teachers also dealt with troubles, as they had little training in how to deliver better online instruction, having to engage with their students staring into a screen.
For those 300,000 families with in-person learning, it was a roller coaster of emotions — joy in seeing their children back in school for a few hours of normalcy, mixed with despair when schools shut down for positive cases.
Health officials confirmed school transmission of coronavirus was low but keeping COVID-19 at bay across the five boroughs was a challenge. Union leaders promised to fight if schools weren’t shut down in areas with high community spread.
On Nov. 19, when the city reached a conservative 3% test positivity rate over a 7-day rolling average, Mayor de Blasio shut down schools. That meant 960,000 students across the 1,800 schools were now entirely remote.
In December, the stage was set once again for a staggered reopening, with elementary and special needs schools returning Dec. 7. To reopen, city and union leaders agreed to increased weekly coronavirus testing for 20% of the school population. Middle schools followed Feb. 25.
While a vaccine makes this coming school year promising, teachers say they are working harder than ever to address the learning loss from the last 12 months and to repair the mental anguish of their students and keep children inspired.
De Blasio promises a strong comeback of in-person learning in September.