NYC students return to school but most not to classrooms

Monday's return to New York City schools wasn't the one anyone planned for. For most, it wasn't a return at all. 

Only pre-kindergarten and some special education students ended a six-month absence from school buildings after a last-minute decision to postpone, for the second time, plans to be among the first big districts to resume in-person instruction after the coronavirus forced students and staff home.

Mayor Bill de Blasio greeted pre-K students at a school in Queens and praised the "air of energy and spirit" among teachers and pupils. "To see those children so engaged, so happy to be there, it was truly inspiring," de Blasio said.

In Manhattan, Alexandra Safir greeted her daughter, Harper, after the first day of in-school pre-K at P.S. 33. "The first day went really well today so I'm happy," Safir said. Three-year-old Harper said she had a good first day but naptime presented one problem: "I couldn't sleep with my mask on."

Schoolchildren in kindergarten through 12th grade also started the new school year Monday, but fully remotely, the same way students in Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and many of New York's other urban districts have.

After a fidgety spring of online pre-K, Jessica D'Amato's 5-year-old son has been so excited about going back to in-person school that he keeps asking: "When am I going to kindergarten?"

First the answer was Sept. 10. Then it was Monday. Now it's Sept. 29, much to the family's frustration. High school students return Oct. 1.

"I think that all the students are really, really at a disservice right now — because of the uncertainty, because of the lack of in-person instruction," said D'Amato, 35, a public relations manager who lives in Brooklyn. 

She wondered why the city is still grappling with the staffing shortages cited for the latest delay after having months to plan, and how likely it is that the extra days will solve the problem.

"I can't see how they're going to fix the issue in a week, and I'll be very upset if then they push it again," she said, "because this kid needs to be in school already."

De Blasio announced the new timeline Thursday alongside leaders of the city's teachers union, who had sounded alarms that schools could not open safely.

De Blasio said Monday he was confident the new dates would stick. 

The majority of the more than 1 million public school students will be in the classroom one to three days a week and learning remotely the rest of the time.

Before the latest delay, teacher Chloe Davis had spent last week bracing to welcome her fourth-grade class at P.S. 536, reassured on one level upon seeing the newly cleaned and painted building but so anxious at times she broke down crying. Chief among her worries is keeping her students from picking up the virus and bringing it home to their families.

"Four or five months ago, thousands of people were dying," said Davis, who takes the subway to her school in the Bronx, "and the pandemic is still around. The virus is still there and we're still in the midst of a pandemic."

The rate of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations plunged after an April peak and has largely flattened this summer across the state: New York has seen an average of 1% of daily tests coming up positive since June.

Still, New York City has seen a slight tick up in hospitalizations and infections this month.

An average of 223 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in New York City over the week ending Wednesday, up from 195 in the same time period two weeks earlier.

And New York City has seen an average of 289 new infections over the past week, up from a seven-day average of 262 three weeks earlier.

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The city reported another 4,400 positive COVID-19 tests so far this month, on top of another 9,000 in August.

Daniel Leviatin, a fourth grade teacher and school librarian at P.S. 59 in the Bronx, sees no reason to push students back into buildings and believes the city squandered the chance to address technology issues and improve distance learning over the summer.

"Every single moment of the planning of this and the way it's been unrolled, is a mess," Leviatin said.

He and Davis said they know other large districts will be watching to see what happens when the students finally return.

"You know how at hospitals and things, they'll do research and they'll pay the participants?" Davis said. "I feel like I'm like part of that, but I didn't sign up for it."

Associated Press writers Marina Villeneuve in Albany and Karen Matthews in New York City contributed to this report.