Classroom return: 25,000 and counting

Parents have until April 7 to switch their public school kids from remote learning


If the past year has taught society anything, it’s that a lot can change even over the course of a few weeks. And even more can change over four months.

After all, it was four months ago when the city’s public school system last offered an opt-in window for parents to switch their children from fully remote learning to hybrid — giving them the benefits of not just learning from home, but also in physical classrooms. In hindsight, it didn’t quite matter much, because two days after the opt-in window ended, the entire public school system shut down physical campuses due to rising coronavirus cases throughout the city.

In-person learning remains many people’s preferred model for learning, but enrollment numbers haven’t exactly reflected that in the midst of a public health crisis. The majority of the city’s public school students — about 75 percent of them — were doing all their learning from home.

Still, in the country’s largest public school system, that means some 280,000 students are going to campuses at least part of the time.

Now, however, more students will have the opportunity to join them. Mayor Bill de Blasio has opened another opt-in window giving parents a chance to get their kids out of the house more and back to school buildings, at least part of the time. That window is open until April 7, although there is no news about when these hybrid classes would actually begin.

Since campuses first started letting some students back in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, parents always had the option to shift their children from this hybrid learning environment back to purely remote at any time. The same, however, can’t be said for vice versa. They need to wait for opt-in “windows” like this one. And up until a few weeks ago, parents weren’t even sure one of those windows would be available again.

de Blasio floated the possibility last November he wouldn’t provide any more opt-in windows for the academic year. That meant any decision before Thanksgiving to stay home five days a week would be permanent — until next fall, at least.

“It’s time for people to make a decision,” de Blasio said at the time. “The schools are safe. It has been proven over and over again. Parents need to decide. And with one crucial reminder: If you decide to go all remote, that’s where you’re going to be until something changes on the health front.”

But little did de Blasio know the rising coronavirus cases in the city at the time weren’t just a fluke. Instead, the country was about to experience what’s now considered its “second wave” of cases — the worst of which saw as many as 4,000 deaths each day in January.

Many parents were faced with an impossible decision: Should they send their children back to campus in the midst of a coronavirus surge? Or should they keep them home, knowing the next time their children could be inside a classroom might not be until September?

Luckily, something did change on the health front. In the months following de Blasio’s pseudo-ultimatum, coronavirus vaccines arrived, first from Pfizer and then Moderna. Teachers ultimately were among one of the first groups to get vaccinated.

Fast forward to April, while cases are on the rise again, people nevertheless are feeling a bit safer with the vaccine as an immediate reality. Last November, Jonathan Cane’s son was learning exclusively from home — and he planned for him to remain that way, barring a major breakthrough. Like a vaccine.

Four months down the line, Cane is vaccinated, and his son is headed back to the physical classroom to finish out the fourth grade in-person at P.S. 81 Robert J. Christen.

“There were a lot of different variables, but (the vaccine) was the one that put it over the top,” Cane said. “I’m looking at it going, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be safer.’ And even though it’s frustrating that there are a couple of cases here and there in the schools, they certainly don’t seem to be out of control.”

Cane thinks his son will be very happy to return to campus now that he has the opportunity to do so. And while it might not be the fourth-grade year he was expecting, it’s probably better than staying at home with his dad all day.

“He made a very compelling argument that COVID is even harder for kids than it is for adults, because he really misses his friends (and) social opportunities,” Cane said. “And I think he’s right. I mean it’s hard for everybody, but it’s been really disruptive for him to be home with me pretty much 24/7 for the past year.”

But Cane also recognizes his reality wasn’t the same as others. He works from home, so it was a fairly easy decision to keep his son close. Yet there are 1.1 million other public school students with 1.1 million unique situations in this unorthodox academic year, where unlike a test in school, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to how children should learn.

“I think parents have to consider their kid’s mental and social-emotional well-being throughout this,” Cane said. “I certainly wouldn’t urge anyone to send their kid back. But all along, I also haven’t been judgmental of anyone that has sent their kid in from Day One.

“Everyone’s in different situations,” he added, “but far be it for me to tell someone that they’ve been wrong.”