NEW YORK — New York City public schools reopened on Monday for up to 90,000 children — a small fraction of the city's 1.1 million public school students but the first time any in-person classes have been held since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March.
Pre-kindergarten students and those with advanced special needs were the only students to return to school buildings after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio abruptly delayed the start of the school year for everyone else last week amid a teacher shortage and ongoing safety concerns.
As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo criticized the city for its constantly changing reopening plan, the head of the city teachers union warned that the city’s plan still won’t provide enough teachers to open middle schools and high schools.
But de Blasio, who greeted pre-kindergarteners returning to school in Elmhurst, Queens, called the reopening a milestone for the city’s recovery.
“This year was powerful because we’ve had to overcome so much. [It's] the first time our kids are going back to a school building in large numbers since the middle of March,” the mayor told reporters.
“What we also saw was a real devotion to health and safety. A devotion to social distancing, a devotion to the temperature checks ... and the masks. Everyone was wearing a mask, and those 4-year-olds were wearing their masks with no problem at all,” he said.
Monday was supposed to be the first day of school for all students, after the mayor moved back the original start date from Sept. 10 to avert a teachers strike. But de Blasio announced last Thursday that the opening would be delayed for everyone except students in pre-kindergarten, pre-school classes for 3-year-olds and special education.
Some 734 schools and 1,050 community-based early childhood education programs opened on Monday for those students.
The rest of the city’s students began classes online Monday. Elementary schools are now scheduled to open on Sept. 29, and middle schools and high schools on Oct. 1.
More than 40 percent of students have opted out of in-person classes and will remain all-online. The remainder will go to school one to three days a week to keep classes small and allow social distancing, while taking online classes on other days.
The city agreed to bring on 4,500 new teachers to alleviate a shortage sparked by a policy requiring separate teachers for in-person and online sessions. But the principals and teachers unions say that will only be enough to staff elementary schools, not middle schools and high schools.
"We still do not have the number for middle school and high school," United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew said Monday at a press conference at the Mickey Mantle School in Manhattan.
Still, Mulgrew said he did not expect there to be a third delay. "I'm pretty confident that we're going to open next Tuesday," he said.
Cuomo, for his part, took aim at the mayor over the frequent changes to the city’s school reopening plan.
“Better you come up with a plan that is more predictable and more stable and then you stick to it,” Cuomo said during a conference call on Monday. “I don’t think it’s helpful when they change dates and they change the plan, because then there’s just a ripple effect, and then people have to readjust their lives, employers have to readjust their schedules.”
Also delayed is the city’s promised child care program, to care for kids on days they are learning remotely and allow their parents to work. De Blasio initially promised 100,000 child care seats, but later admitted the city would be able to open only 30,000 for the start of school. Child care began only for those students whose schools opened, so there are only 3,600 seats operating this week.
The city’s online learning platforms also experienced glitches on the first day of classes, with the Department of Education’s log-in page crashing at around 9 a.m., said Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza. He said it was fixed in about 10 minutes.