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N.Y.C. Schools Reopen With Joy and Anxiety on ‘Game Changer’ First Day

New York City’s schools reopened on Monday to scenes of joy, relief and anxiety, as roughly a million children returned to their classrooms, most of them for the first time since the country’s largest school system closed in March 2020 because of the pandemic.

The day, always 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 has complicated the city’s push to fully reopen schools.

It represents a crucial moment in the city’s long recovery from the pandemic, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has much at stake in keeping schools open, even as other districts across the country have faced quarantines and other disruptions. In contrast to last year, and unlike some other major urban districts, the city did not offer a remote option to most students.

It is unclear how many parents will keep their children at home — at least initially. Last year, 600,000 children were signed up for remote learning, and while the vast majority of those children seemed to have returned to schools on Monday, a small group of parents have petitioned the city to resume online classes.

Mr. de Blasio said he believed that almost all students would eventually return. Meisha Porter, the schools chancellor, said last week that the Administration for Children’s Services could get involved if families refuse to send their children back after several weeks.

The city’s preliminary attendance rate on Monday was just over 82 percent but did not include tallies from about 350 out of about 1,800 schools. That rate was lower than in previous years, but not dramatically so: First-day attendance in recent pre-pandemic years hovered around 90 percent.

The mayor said Monday would 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 back. In Brownsville, Brooklyn, Debra Gray nervously dropped off her 13-year-old son Kamari, who has asthma, at Public School 323. “We’ve got to give this a chance,” she said. “The kids need time with their teachers. But I’m concerned.”

To reassure parents that their children are returning to safe classrooms, city officials have implemented policies including random testing, vaccine mandates for school staff and quarantines for unvaccinated students. All students, teachers and staff members must wear masks inside schools.

But for all the planning, the online health screening survey that parents are required to fill out each morning temporarily crashed as hundreds of thousands of people logged on simultaneously.

Still, the day went off with few major hitches. Across the city, students expressed excitement and uncertainty about the new year.

On a subway car with broken air-conditioning in East New York, Brooklyn, Neriyah Smith, who is 8, said she was nervous and excited about seeing her classmates again after learning remotely for all of last year. “I made a lot of friends before I was on computers,” she said.

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

New York, which always starts and ends its school year later than most other districts, is the last major system in the country to reopen. Los Angeles and San Francisco have seen very few outbreaks in the weeks schools have been open, while other districts that do not require masks or other safety measures have seen mass student quarantines. In Mississippi, for example, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, there were 69 outbreaks at schools in the first few weeks of classes.

Mr. de Blasio has long said that the city, once an epicenter of the pandemic, would not be able to 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 with much of the rest of the country, appears to be plateauing just as the school year begins.

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

In May, amid a brisk vaccine rollout and rapidly declining virus case counts, Mr. de Blasio announced that the city would no longer offer remote instruction to most students. (A few thousand children whom the city considers medically vulnerable will still be able to learn from home.)

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

Many of the mostly Black and Latino families that kept their children learning from home last year have returned to buildings. But some say they would have preferred to wait at least until their young children are eligible for the vaccine. Only children 12 and older are currently eligible, and it’s expected that younger children will not be eligible until later this year at the earliest.

Mr. de Blasio has said the city is not considering mandating shots for eligible children, as Los Angeles has done.

But New York has gone further than most districts in the country by implementing a full vaccine mandate for all its educators, along with all adults who work in school buildings.

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

In the Bronx, Jazlynn said that her first-day-of-school jitters were about more than making the jump from middle school to high school: They were about relearning how to go to school. “I used to be very talkative to people, but now I keep my distance and I stay quiet now, that’s what makes me more nervous,” she said.

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

Online classes made him feel “a little sad and kind of lonely as well,” he said, adding, “It was hard to get to know people.” But now, Nate said, “I can’t believe I made it to ninth grade, to 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 had been consistently receiving A grades for her work until the pandemic started.

“I can’t learn online,” she said, adding, “I didn’t think my first year of high school would be like that. I’ve missed looking around a classroom and having people there around me.”

The mayor has remained resolute that the school year will proceed normally, albeit with safety measures in place. But it is still possible that significant in-school transmission this fall could force many school buildings — or even the entire system — to shut down temporarily.

City schools saw remarkably low virus transmission in their buildings last year, but most schools were at significantly reduced capacity. Yet even with a low transmission rate at the end of last year, quarantines were still a regular occurrence.

The city’s newly announced quarantine policy will almost certainly lead to frequent short-term classroom closures, particularly for younger children.

In elementary schools, where children are still too young to be vaccinated, one positive case in a classroom will prompt a 10-day quarantine, and a switch to remote learning, for that entire classroom.

In middle and high schools, only unvaccinated students will have to quarantine if exposed to someone with the virus, meaning that unvaccinated students could have a much different school year than their vaccinated classmates. Over 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 C.D.C. calls for, alarming some parents and public health experts.

A random sample of 10 percent of unvaccinated students whose families consent to testing will be tested in each school every other week; the city was testing 20 percent of people in all school buildings weekly by the end of last year.

Testing will begin this week. Asked Monday about the city’s testing protocols, Mr. de Blasio said that schools can ramp up testing if needed.

The city’s modest testing program has made many educators uneasy, including the thousands of teachers who received medical waivers to work remotely last year. But on Monday, all educators were back in 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 overjoyed to see students he hadn’t seen since March 2020 — some of whom had experienced major growth spurts.

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

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

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