New York City’s classrooms reopened on Monday to roughly a million children, most of whom were returning for the first time since the United States’ largest school system closed in March 2020.
While the city reopened schools last fall for part-time learning, the vast majority of students chose to keep learning remotely. But with no remote option now available to almost all parents, classrooms will be full for the first time in a year and a half.
For months, Mayor Bill de Blasio has forecast the first day of school to be a triumphant coda in New York City’s long recovery from the pandemic. But the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant has complicated the city’s push to fully reopen schools and left many families and educators anxious about what the next few months will hold.
On Monday morning, Neriyah and Khyree Smith boarded a subway car with broken air-conditioning and headed back to their East New York, Brooklyn, school for the first time since they left 18 months ago.
Neriyah, who is 8, said she was nervous and excited about seeing her classmates again.
“I made a lot of friends before I was on computers,” she said. Khyree, 4, showed off his matching SpongeBob SquarePants backpack and lunchbox. Their mother, Tiffany Smith, chose to keep her children learning from home last year.
But she said they both struggled to focus, and that she now felt safe with them back in classrooms. “They have a lot of safety protocols,” Ms. Smith said of city schools.
Across the city in Queens, incoming freshmen lined up outside Bayside High School to get a first glimpse inside their new school.
Nate Hernandez, 14, a freshman from Jamaica, Queens, boarded the Q31 bus at 6 a.m. on Monday with his mother to make sure he wouldn’t be late. Nate, who learned fully remotely during his last year of middle school, said online classes made him feel “a little sad and kind of lonely as well,” he said of learning remotely. “It was hard to get to know people.”
He hopes that the new school will offer a fresh start.
“I can’t believe I made it to ninth grade, to high school,” he said. “I’m like, ‘I’m going to high school now.’ It’s crazy.”
The first day of school in a system as large as New York’s can be chaotic even during normal times. This year is anything but. Even before schools opened their doors on Monday morning, the city was scrambling to fix the first problem of the new school year. The online health screenings that families are required to fill out each morning had crashed by about 8 a.m., as hundreds of thousands of parents attempted to log on at the same time.
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That led to long lines outside some schools across the city, as educators were forced to complete their own screenings of how each child was feeling that morning.
Monday’s reopening capped months of planning and anticipation for the third consecutive school year disrupted by the pandemic.
In May, amid a brisk vaccine rollout and rapidly declining virus case counts, Mr. de Blasio announced that the city would no longer offer remote instruction to most students. (A few thousand children whom the city considers medically vulnerable will still be able to learn from home.) His announcement triggered little political resistance in the spring, but his administration has faced growing pressure from parents and politicians to reconsider.
About 600,000 families, most of them Black and Latino, kept their children learning from home last year. This year, while parents are much more receptive to reopening schools, some say they would like to wait at least until their young children are eligible for the vaccine. Only children 12 and older are currently eligible, and younger children may not be until later in the year, at the earliest.
The mayor has remained resolute that the school year will proceed normally, albeit with safety measures in place. But it is still possible that significant in-school transmission this fall could force many school buildings — or even the entire system — to shut down temporarily.
City schools saw remarkably low virus transmission in their buildings last year, but most schools were at significantly reduced capacity. Even with a transmission rate of 0.03 percent as of the end of last year, quarantines were still a regular occurrence.
This year, at least some level of disruption is inevitable, as positive cases in classrooms will force some other students to quarantine.
Mr. de Blasio has acknowledged that he does not expect all children to actually return to school this week, since some parents have informed their principals that they want to wait a few days or even weeks to see how reopening goes.
Emma Goldberg and Chelsia Rose Marcius contributed reporting.