New York City high schools reopened on Monday for the first time since November, the last group of schools in the nation’s largest system to welcome back students after a shutdown driven by high coronavirus infection rates.
The vast majority of students — some 70 percent — will continue to learn entirely from home for now because they chose to sign up for all-remote classes.
But city public school students who opted for all-remote education will now have another chance to sign up for in person classes starting this Wednesday, with elementary school children returning to class in April, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
Middle and high school students who are at home full time can also sign up during the two-week opt-in period, which goes from March 24 through April 7. But there is no timeline for when they may be able to return to school.
Some 488 high schools partially reopened on Monday.
The entire school system shut down in mid-November when the city’s Covid-19 infection rate hit 3 percent. Elementary schools reopened in December, and middle schools opened in February. In recent weeks the citywide infection rate has been hovering between 6 and 7 percent.
“We want to obviously have the maximum number of kids back that we can do safely,” de Blasio said at a press briefing Monday. “Our goal is maximum number of kids back, maximum number of days per child.”
De Blasio welcomed students back Monday morning to the School for Law, Government and Justice in the Bronx with his new schools chancellor, Meisha Ross Porter.
“What a good sign, what a hopeful sign about our future … to see teenagers just so ready to be back in school, happy to be back with their friends, happy to be back with their teachers,” de Blasio said.
At many city high schools, students are taking all-remote classes even if they are physically in school because of staff shortages and scheduling complications caused by the city’s hybrid learning system. De Blasio acknowledged that was happening but insisted it was not “the norm.”
In line with new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance issued last week, the city will reduce the required amount of distance between students to three feet in elementary schools, de Blasio and public health officials said. Six feet of space will still be required when students take off their masks to eat and in certain other situations.
That will allow more students who are currently all-remote to return. Due to social distancing requirements, many students who have opted for in-person learning can only attend a few days a week and stay home on other days. Other students are able to come in five days a week depending on how crowded their school is.
While bullish on reopening schools, de Blasio said it was “time to reassess” the pace of other reopenings while coronavirus cases in New York remain high, driven by more contagious variants. Gov. Phil Murphy in neighboring New Jersey said Monday he would pause reopenings there. New Jersey and New York have had the highest per capita case rates in the country.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently allowed restaurants in the city to expand to 50 percent capacity indoors.
“We’ve got to stop there. That would be my strong view,” de Blasio said. The governor also authorized indoor fitness classes, a decision the mayor chastised, as well as larger gatherings and the reopening of performing arts venues.
De Blasio and Porter also announced on Monday that city schools will be spared from budget cuts they were set to endure because of declining student enrollment.
Many schools have seen their populations drop because of families leaving the city or withdrawing from the public school system. Under normal rules, that would force the school to hand back a portion of their funding to the city, which many schools said would be a hardship.
After the city got a multibillion-dollar bailout from the recent federal aid bill, schools will now get to keep the money and spend it on more teachers, substitutes, counselors and other needs.
“We have to close that Covid achievement gap. We have to reach kids academically and emotionally,” de Blasio said.
De Blasio also declined to say whether he agrees with mayoral candidate Andrew Yang’s statements blaming the United Federation of Teachers for the slow reopening of schools.
“I do believe that the UFT has been a significant reason why our schools have been slow to open,” Yang told POLITICO last week.
“We can all analyze what’s happened previously, but to me the issue is where we go from here,” the mayor said. “All candidates need to speak their truth, and then it needs to be judged.”