Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Sunday that he would reopen public elementary schools, abruptly shifting policy in the face of widespread criticism that officials were placing more of a priority on economic activities like indoor dining than the well-being of New York City’s children.
Mr. de Blasio said middle and high schools would remain closed, but also signaled that he would overhaul how the city manages the system during the pandemic, which has forced millions of children in the United States out of schools and is 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 many parents the option of sending their children to school five days a week, which would effectively end the so-called hybrid learning system for some city schools.
Students can return only if they have already signed up for in-person learning, meaning just about 190,000 children in the grades and schools the city is reopening next week would be eligible. About 335,000 students in total have chosen in-person classes.
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.
“Whatever happens ahead, we want this to be the plan going forward,” Mr. de Blasio said at a news conference. “We know what we didn’t know over the summer, we know what works from actual experience.”
Mr. de Blasio is reopening elementary schools even though the city’s seven-day average test positivity rate on Sunday had climbed to 3.9 percent — well above the former threshold that led him to close the system on Nov. 18 as a second wave of the outbreak threatened the city.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has often clashed with Mr. de Blasio over the response to the pandemic and has final authority over how schools operate during the crisis, said on Sunday that he supported the mayor’s plan.
Bringing children and educators safely back into public schools has been one of the most vexing, high-stakes problems created by the pandemic.
As virus cases have spiked across the country in recent weeks, some districts, like Philadelphia’s, have delayed plans to reopen schools, and others, including Los Angeles’s, do not yet have a plan to reopen. Many children throughout the country have not returned to classrooms since March, and it is unclear how many will before a vaccine is distributed.
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 a major milestone in the city’s long path to recovery — and the closing of the schools less than eight weeks later was a blow.
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 indoor dining rooms and bars, which are far more likely to spread the virus, to shutter.
Mr. Cuomo, not the mayor, controls regulations regarding indoor dining and gyms. But after the city schools closed, both Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio had come under intense criticism from some parents, who expressed deep concern about how their children were faring during remote learning.
In fact, the timing of Mr. de Blasio’s announcement raised new questions about why he decided to close schools at all just about 10 days ago.
Managing the city’s sprawling public school system has clearly been one of the most daunting tasks facing the mayor and his team during the pandemic. But the seemingly haphazard changes to the reopening plan have been frustrating for parents and educators. The mayor himself acknowledged as much on Sunday when asked whether he had any regrets about closing schools again.
“I felt pained — I didn’t want to do that to kids or parents,” he said.
After several tumultuous weeks, Mr. de Blasio’s announcement was generally well-received on Sunday. The powerful teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, which has often clashed with City Hall over its effort to reopen the system, said it supported the new plan, as long as rigorous virus testing was in place.
The new blueprint represents the city’s second shot at reopening, after the first attempt was plagued by problems and Mr. de Blasio’s 3 percent threshold to close schools was roundly assailed as too low by parents, politicians and public health experts.
Now, instead of using such a metric, the city will increase testing in schools and close those that have multiple confirmed virus cases. The system will also, for now, adopt a model that has become more common across the country and world, 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 strict safety protocols are followed.
New York’s schools had extremely low test positivity rates during the roughly eight weeks they were open this fall, and there was agreement from the president of the teachers’ union to the mayor’s top public health officials that schools were far safer than had been anticipated. By the time schools closed, the school positivity rate was .28 percent.
When elementary schools reopen, the city will significantly increase random testing: rather than testing a sampling of students and staff in each building once a month, the city will test weekly. Students will not be allowed to attend in person unless parents sign consent forms, allowing testing.
Nothing else about New York City’s safety plan will change; six feet of social distance will be mandated. But the city will reduce its use of hybrid learning — under which children physically attended school a few days a week and learned remotely the rest of the time — for many schools.
Some schools that have seen large numbers of students return to classrooms will likely have to stick with hybrid for the time being.
But many schools, particularly in neighborhoods with large populations of Black, Latino and Asian-American students, have had low enrollment. Some teachers reported seeing just three or four students a day, though most classrooms can hold about nine children under pandemic rules.
It is likely that in those neighborhoods, more children will be able to return full time.
The hybrid learning plan was undercut from the start by a series of regulations about who could teach and when, which had been agreed upon by the teachers’ union and City Hall.
Teachers could not be required to teach both in-person and online on the same day, and were discouraged from livestreaming lessons in the classroom to children at home, even though other districts have adopted that practice.
Many educators said the rules were nearly impossible to follow, and some schools disregarded them. Some large high schools urged students to stay remote full time, so that schools could more easily offer electives and advanced courses. As a result, in-person high school enrollment has been relatively low.
The percentage of students who can return to classrooms in the coming days will certainly be lower than that, since middle and high school students who opted for in-person classes will not have that option for now.
City data has shown that white families, who make up just 15 percent of the public school system, have chosen all-remote learning at the lowest rates.
That means that white students may have a disproportionate presence in city classrooms once they are reopened, and can attend school full time, while hundreds of thousands of children of color may be learning from home until next fall.
Asked about that dynamic on Sunday, Mr. de Blasio said he was “very concerned,” but said school would return to normal after a vaccine was distributed.
The mayor said earlier this fall that families would not have another opportunity to switch from remote to in-person classes.
That is sure to upset some parents who might have chosen in-person learning if they knew that their children might be able to return to school full time, and to frustrate principals, who will once again be forced to restructure their schools.
Remote learning has been particularly disastrous for the roughly 24,000 children in New York’s District 75, a set of schools for children with disabilities who require the most intensive support, which includes students on the autism spectrum and children with serious cognitive delays.
Online learning simply was not an option, and their parents have spent months asking the city to get their children back into classrooms as often as possible.