[NEW YORK] New York City has now reopened all its public schools in a milestone for the city's recovery from its position as the global epicentre of the pandemic and a hopeful sign for the country's unsteady effort to return children to classrooms.
Middle and high school students were welcomed to school buildings on Thursday, following elementary school children who had started earlier this week.
About half a million students, from three-year-olds in pre-K programmes to high school seniors, have returned to school for the first time since March.
"I'm glad they are back," Judy Spain, a cook at Bedford Academy High School in Brooklyn, said on Thursday. "They need to be back. They've been missing the school environment, socialising. Being in the house is not good for them. They need to be around kids their own age." Roughly another 480,000 children have opted to start the school year remote-only, an indication of how wary many New Yorkers are of sending their children back to classrooms in a city that still fears a second wave of the virus.
Despite considerable political opposition to reopening and significant planning problems that forced Mayor Bill de Blasio to twice delay the start of in-person classes, New York, which has by far the nation's largest school system, is now the only large district in the country that has reopened all its schools.
Some other big districts are not far behind, though they have faced their own challenges. Schools in Miami-Dade are set to reopen on Monday, at the order of the Florida state education commissioner, despite the strong opposition of the teachers' union. And school leaders in Houston, Washington, DC, and San Diego are planning on bringing at least some students back into classrooms later this month.
But over the summer, many districts across the country abandoned plans to offer in-person instruction as the virus surged in many states and reopening became a deeply partisan political issue - in part because President Donald Trump put schools at the centre of his push to reopen the country.
New York's reopening effort has been plagued by political issues and logistical concerns from the moment Mr de Blasio announced in July that schools would reopen on a hybrid basis, with children reporting to school one to three days a week to allow for social distancing.
The United Federation of Teachers, the city's powerful teachers' union, soon began raising alarms about the need for safety measures, including upgraded ventilation systems in classrooms and a more robust testing programme in schools.
At several points throughout the summer, the teachers' union declared that the city's roughly 1,400 school buildings were not ready to reopen and demanded that the mayor push back the start date.
And at one point in mid-September, the unions representing both teachers and principals delivered an urgent warning: If the mayor reopened schools as scheduled, they said, children would report to classrooms without teachers, because of a huge staffing shortage.
By the time Mr de Blasio delayed the start of in-person instruction for the second time in mid-September, some parents and educators were publicly questioning whether classrooms would open at all or if the mayor would revert to all-remote instruction. Earlier this week, the union representing city principals said its members had lost confidence in Mr de Blasio's ability to reopen schools and called on the state to take over the effort.
Still, Mr de Blasio forged ahead, arguing that reopening schools was a moral imperative. Students in pre-K classes and children with advanced disabilities returned to classrooms last week.
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, the mayor said his visit to an elementary school earlier this week affirmed his view that schools should reopen. "We saw a lot of adults with tears in their eyes too, tears of joy that they could see the kids they love again," he said. "Seeing everyone reunited was really, really powerful." Now, after months of tumult and considerable backlash from educators and parents, Mr de Blasio is the only big-city mayor to have succeeded in fully reopening a school system.
But getting children back into classrooms does not mean that school reopening has worked.
The city still faces myriad challenges. It is unclear how educationally effective hybrid learning really is; some students will report to classrooms just one day a week and learn at home the rest of the time without any live instruction from their teachers, and others will learn remotely even from school buildings.
The Department of Education has not said how it will ensure that children are making progress despite their disruptive school schedules.
Some children will not get any in-person instruction even under the new system: Some high schools have asked students to stay at home if they are able, in order for the schools to offer a full schedule remotely without having to double their teaching staffs. And some children still do not have devices or internet access to log on for remote classes.
There are also pressing safety questions. The city, which has lost more than 20,000 New Yorkers to the virus, saw its test positivity rate increase earlier this week to just over 3 per cent before falling again; Mr de Blasio has said he will automatically close the entire public school system if the rate reaches 3 per cent over a seven-day rolling average.
Experts also widely predict that many classrooms and some school buildings will close in the coming days and weeks as children and teachers test positive. Schools will temporarily close if there are at least two confirmed cases in separate classrooms.
Some closures are to be expected and are not necessarily cause for alarm, public health officials have said, but the entire system could shut down if significant outbreaks are detected.