Reopening Whiplash in New York City

Parents, teachers and children had only a few days to get used to the nation’s biggest school district shutting classrooms before Mayor Bill de Blasio announced another plot twist on Sunday: Students in pre-K and elementary school would return to school after all, starting on Dec. 7.

But — and there is always a “but” in the New York City school system — not all younger school students will be able to go back.

(This story gets a bit into the weeds for New Yorkers. For everyone else, it’s most important to know that by prioritizing young and special needs learners, New York City is adopting a model that is becoming more common across the country and world.)

In early November, the mayor set a deadline for parents to decide if their children would return to classrooms this school year. To date, about 335,000 students have opted into hybrid learning — less than a third of the city’s roughly 1.1 million students in public schools.

Of those, about 190,000 are in pre-K or elementary school, or in a specialized district for students with disabilities. They’re the only kids who will be able to attend class starting next week. Middle and high school students will continue all-remote learning.

“I have to say, I’m not actually surprised at all,” said our colleague Eliza Shapiro, who covers the city’s schools. “The mayor was super clear that he wanted to reopen, that he would do it as soon as he could, and the science from the summer and fall has made elementary schools the safest bet.”

Instead of closing all schools when the test positivity rate for the entire city hits 3 percent, the system will close only schools that have multiple confirmed virus cases. It will also increase testing: A sampling of students and staff in each building will be tested every week, instead of every month.

The reopenings will have to be handled piecemeal, accounting for each school’s ability to teach students in person at a safe social distance, based on classroom capacity and number of teachers. Many schools, but not all, will start teaching students in person five days a week.

The abrupt shift in policy, which is backed by the city’s teachers’ union, will surely stir up longstanding complaints about opportunity and inequality in the city’s schools.

White families, who make up just 15 percent of the public school system, have chosen remote learning at the lowest rates. But that means many of their schools are too full to allow in-person learning five days a week. Schools with more Black, Latino and Asian-American students may have more capacity, largely because their families have been more likely to choose remote learning.

In Adam’s parent group texts, Sunday’s news was welcomed with relief by many, but also prompted a level of frustration and outrage that made Twitter look tame. Some parents complained that the five-days-a-week promise was a mirage, since not all schools could achieve it. Others were irate that they had been forced to choose between remote and in-person for the entire year before their options were clear.

The city’s policies may well shift again, allowing more of the students who opted out back into classrooms. But that is by no means a guarantee. New York is able to offer in-person learning to some kids only because the in-person option was so unpopular.

The bottom line: New York City may not be able to safely bring more students back to class until a vaccine arrives.

Baltimore’s public school students returned to classrooms on Nov. 16 for the first time since March. Our colleague Erica L. Green, who covered education for The Baltimore Sun before joining The Times, observed the joyful, but nerve-racking first week back.

“I wonder how they’re going to react to all of this,” said one teacher, Zia Hellman, scanning her room for the last time before her students walked through the doors. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel, but it feels right.”

Hellman, 26, dodged around the triangular desks, spaced six feet apart and boxed in by blue tape. She fretted about the blandness of the walls, fumbled with the plastic dividers covering name tags and arranged the individual yoga mats that replaced colorful carpets. Every window was open for extra ventilation, chilling the air.

“I feel like I’m a bit in ‘The Hunger Games,’” said Hellman, who was among the first group of teachers required to work. “I didn’t volunteer as tribute, I was chosen as tribute. But I want to be here for my students.”

The local teachers’ union is calling for buildings to stay closed until they are deemed absolutely safe or a vaccine is widely available. It has pressured individual teachers against volunteering to go back and encouraged parents to boycott.

“We’re not just being obstructionist; we’re obstructing the district from putting people’s lives at risk,” said Diamonté Brown, the president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

But for many students, remote learning has been a disaster. The country’s most vulnerable children have sustained severe academic and social harm. (For a deep look, read this story by Alec MacGillis in ProPublica about one Baltimore student trying to attend class remotely.)

Hellman, who has taught kindergarten for four years, worried about “corona-shaming” for returning to work. In the classroom, she tries to keep an upbeat attitude.

“I love your mask,” she told one student when he entered the classroom, “but I think it would be cuter on.”

At 9:30, all the students were allowed to remove their masks to snack on Cinnamon Toast Crunch and applesauce. “It’s only 10 minutes,” she told them and herself, “and the windows are open.”

By 10:30, things had settled down, and she was just a teacher. Students were practicing writing their letters. By 11, they were preparing for recess by singing to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell.”

My mask is on my face.

My mask is on my face.

Masks keep you and me safe.

My mask is on my face.

“The purpose of the first day is to feed them, have fun and send them home,” Hellman said. “We need them to come back the next day.”

Read Erica’s full story here.

On Saturday, Sarah Fuller became the first woman to play during a regular-season game in one of college football’s Power 5 conferences by booting a kickoff for Vanderbilt University.

“It’s just so exciting that I can represent the little girls out there who wanted to do this or thought about playing football or any sport,” she said.

Fuller, a senior, is the starting goalkeeper for Vanderbilt’s women’s soccer team. She stepped up to play football after every member of the kicking squad had to stop practicing after a possible coronavirus exposure. In the game, Vanderbilt lost to Missouri, 41-0.

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