New York City schools’ return to in-person classes leaves parents with tough choices

This week is a big test for the New York City public school system, the largest in the nation. After a chaotic couple of months, officials say they’re finally ready to invite students back into classrooms.

Now they have to convince parents and teachers it’s safe.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo first announced August 7 that schools in the state could reopen classrooms for the fall. That was about a month before the scheduled start of the New York City school year. But Cuomo didn’t order schools to reopen — he left that decision to local leaders.

In New York City, that meant Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools commissioner Richard Carranza and a host of other involved parties like teachers’ union leaders and parents’ groups. It proved to be a huge challenge.

First, the city announced schools would open to students on September 10. That got delayed until September 21. And then that date was delayed to September 29, and the start of in-person education was split into several dates. Kindergarten through eighth grade starts on Tuesday, while middle school and high school students have to wait until October 1. And in-person education is limited: a hybrid schedule keeps students in the classroom only a few days a week, with the rest of their learning online.

It’s a complicated schedule, the result of political negotiations and ongoing concern about a new spread of Covid-19 in the city that was once the hardest hit in the United States.

On Sunday, the union representing New York City’s principals and school administrators declared a unanimous vote of “no confidence” in de Blasio and Carranza. The resolution also called for de Blasio and Carranza to ask the New York State Education Department to intervene in New York City’s school reopening plan.

In a press call on Sunday, Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators, said that his members would still be at their buildings Tuesday.

“It seems like all summer long we’ve been running into roadblock after roadblock, with changing guidance, confusing guidance, sometimes no guidance,” Cannizzaro said. “The frustration and the difficulty is immense. We are still 100% supportive of trying to open our schools in the best possible way we can.”

Making families feel comfortable

Behind all the delays and the complexity is an effort to make everyone feel like it’s OK to go back into a school. Like PS-139, a pre-K through fifth grade school in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

People there are still worried, despite the delays and the extra efforts to provide PPE and limit the number of people in the building.

Megan Demarkis is the parent coordinator at PS-139, a full-time position. She told CNN as the delays mounted, increasing numbers of parents opted out of the in-person hybrid schedule in favor of full-time remote learning for their students. She said it’s now a 50-50 split between parents who will send kids to the classroom and those who won’t.

“I think the delay highlights that the Department of Education wasn’t necessarily ready,” she said. “So people started to lose confidence in our city leaders to make effective decisions.”

Demarkis has decided to keep her own son in full-time remote learning for now, citing her multi-generational household.

Even parents sending their students back to school are worried.

“I am not 100% convinced that the schools are completely adequately sanitized and ready for children,” said Vanessa Nisperos, whose twin 8-year-old sons attend PS-139. She’s sending her sons to class because she needs the time they’re at school to work.

The good news for school system leaders hoping this return to school works: Some people who have been inside the building at PS-139 already feel comfortable.

Donna Rivera is a teacher assigned to remote-only students, but she teaches her classes from the school building. So she’s been reporting to work for a couple of weeks. She said she feels safe but wary.

“I think that we’re doing everything that we possibly can as a school, to make sure that we are mitigating the health risks,” she told CNN. “But at the same time, they’re still very much a real risk in coming back to in person learning. I feel like we’re trying to find a balance.”

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