NEW YORK -- Elementary school students went back to classrooms across New York City on Tuesday in a high-stakes test for the nation's biggest public school system even as the mayor warned that a recent rise in coronavirus cases was “cause for real concern.”
With children wearing masks and undergoing temperature checks at schoolhouse doors, students and parents who opted for brick-and-mortar school greeted the twice-delayed date with enthusiasm, relief and some trepidation.
Waiting for her daughter's turn to go into a school in Manhattan's East Village, Ashley Shelton said she hoped the start of school would be good for both of them.
Last spring's sudden shift to online learning was “how can I put that — OK,” Shelton said, but her daughter missed going to school. And Shelton, a single mother, lost her receptionist job amid the pandemic. Now that school is starting, she’s looking for new work.
Still, “I’m not going to say it was easy” to decide to go with in-person school, Shelton said. “Because I have my doubts, I have my worries, but God is good.”
The elementary school reopening — with middle and high schools set to follow Thursday — comes with officials concerned about recent spurts in virus cases in some neighborhoods after a summer of success at keeping transmission fairly stable in the city as a whole.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday that 3.25% of coronavirus tests citywide came back positive Monday, the highest proportion in months. The level had hovered around 1% through the summer and into last week.
“That is cause for real concern,” the Democratic mayor said, saying the city needs to "be on high alert.”
At the same time, New York City restaurants remain set to reopen their indoor dining areas Wednesday at reduced capacity, a step the state and city had held off because of concern about the virus’ potential to spread indoors.
With over 1 million public school students, New York City initially had a more ambitious timeline than many other big U.S. school systems for bringing children back to schoolhouses this fall. Families have the option of choosing all-remote learning, and a growing number are doing so — 48% as of Friday, up from 30% six weeks earlier, according to city Education Department statistics.
The rest will have a virus-altered version of in-person school, learning sometimes in classrooms and sometimes at home.
Pre-kindergarteners and some special education students began showing up Sept. 21 as online instruction began for the rest of the student body. Tuesday was the first day of in-person learning for students in kindergarten through fifth grades whose families chose it.
Third-grader Tenzin Topdhen, 7, said he had liked his online classes but missed his friends — and in school, “we have actual recess.”
Chikage Wallace was also excited for the first day of in-person school — and so was her 6-year-old daughter.
Wallace said the first-grader had kept saying, “I want to go. When can I go?” Meanwhile, Wallace, a beautician, struggled to manage her work with no place for her daughter to go.
“I’m a single mom, so I have to work, so I don’t know how I can survive this situation,” said Wallace, who lives in Brooklyn. “I understand the teachers are scared, but I have no help at all.”
Students were originally due back Sept. 10. But the start date was pushed back, repeatedly, after the city teachers' union said it wasn't safe to open schools because of outdated ventilation systems, an insufficient number of school nurses and other issues. At one point, the United Federation of Teachers threatened to strike.
The union was still pressing for changes as recently as Friday, when the city agreed to let more teachers work from home when instructing students remotely, rather than having to come in to school to conduct online classes.
Union President Michael Mulgrew called Tuesday's reopenings “an important turning point” for the school system. But he said the city needs to plan for closing schools in virus hotspot areas if the trends there don't change quickly.
Meanwhile, the school principals' union called Sunday for the state to take control of the school system for the duration of the pandemic, saying the city's complex, changing plans were creating a “grossly irresponsible” staff crunch.
Many other big school systems around the country began the fall term online, though some are reopening physical schools. In Florida, for instance, students opting for in-person learning returned to schools Sept. 21 in Palm Beach County, where the nation’s 10th largest school system has over 197,000 students.
Associated Press writer Karen Matthews contributed to this report.