Heading back to school ... for real

Classrooms on city campuses will reopen in-person, five days a week

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Technology has become more commonplace in the classroom over the past 20 years or so. But it may have been difficult to guess just how essential it would become in March 2020.

That, of course, was the first time the coronavirus pandemic spread like wildfire throughout the country. And kids all over soon had to report to their computers rather than their classrooms to get the education they need.

A little of that changed when fall — and a new academic year — rolled around, with the city’s offer of “hybrid” learning. But many families — well more than half — chose not to send their kids back to campus a few days a week, instead keeping them home on a strictly remote platform.

But that won’t be an option anymore come September.

Mayor Bill de Blasio says schools will fully reopen in the fall, meaning every child will be back in the classroom. 

It’s been a long time coming, but made possible with falling coronavirus cases, and the fact that anyone 12 and older is eligible for a vaccine.

“It’s time for everyone to come back,” de Blasio told reporters last week. “It’s time to do things the way they were meant to be done — all the kids in the classroom together, getting a great education from educators who care, staff members who care, the school community coming back fully.”

de Blasio’s announcement didn’t come without questions and some confusion. The mayor had previously announced snow days would be replaced with remote learning. Was that still happening, or did de Blasio switch gears?

And there’s also the fact that while positive coronavirus test rates in public schools might be extremely low, it’s still not zero. So what happens if and when someone tests positive for the virus that causes COVID-19?

The answers ended up being simple: Remote learning will still be available to schools, it just won’t be as integral to its operations. For example, the city still plans to do away with snow days and replace them with remote learning days.

And remote learning may still be necessary if coronavirus outbreaks occur on campus. But again, those accommodations will be temporary, and students will return to in-person learning if and when the mandatory quarantine period is over.

And then, of course, there are a handful of students who still might not be able to return to in-person learning, even by September. These are the students who have more severe illnesses or compromised immune systems, which makes them far more vulnerable to COVID-19.

That’s something the United Federation of Teachers — the city’s largest educators union — believes should still remain open to remote learning.

“There is no substitute for in-person learning,” UFT president Michael Mulgrew said, in a release. “We want as many students back in school as safely possible. We still have concerns about the safety of a small number of students with extreme medical challenges. For that small group of students, a remote option may still be necessary.”

But for the vast majority of public school students, they’ll be back in their classrooms this fall. And the city’s education department recognizes it has a lot of work to do in order to convince families who haven’t been inside a school building for more than a year that those buildings are safe.

That’s why the city plans to host a series of open houses for families over the summer. 

They are designed to show parents the protocol in place to keep the school community safe — from coronavirus testing, to masking, to everything in between.

But a lot can change between now and September, especially where public health is concerned. de Blasio says he’ll follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and pay close attention to safety for all the schools. But especially elementary and middle schools where many students are still not eligible to get vaccinated.

These open houses will be essential in convincing public school families that their school buildings are prepared for a full reopening this fall, schools chancellor Meisha Porter said.

“This summer, our schools will open their doors for you, starting in June, to host visits,” Porter said last week. “We want to welcome our families, and we want you to see our schools, see how safe and ready they are.”

Knowing she may no longer be the schools chancellor after a new mayor takes office next year, Porter still wants to be the boots on the ground during the reopening. Yet her enthusiasm for a return to normalcy might pale in comparison to her daughter’s.

“We would not be doing this if our schools were not safe,” Porter said. “I’m a mother of a New York City high school student who was so excited, she was singing and dancing this morning. And so, we would never take any risks with our most important assets, and that’s our children.”

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