By Alex Zimmerman and Reema Amin, Chalkbeat New York
The nation’s largest school system was among the first to throw open its doors. But it has struggled to entice most students back into classrooms.
At least 70% of New York City’s nearly 1 million students have been learning exclusively from home. Now, for the first time since November, those families can sign up for in-person learning, with city officials promising five days a week of instruction in many cases.
But what will it take for families to feel comfortable returning?
Chalkbeat posed that question to more than a dozen parents and students across the city as they mull whether to return to classrooms for the remainder of the school year or next fall.
The city extended the opt-in deadline to April 9, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday. Elementary school children who opt in are expected to return this month, though city officials have not offered a timeline for middle or high school students.
Some families are planning to return to classrooms as soon as possible, comforted by more widely available vaccines. Others are taking a more cautious approach, as local infection rates remain stubbornly high.
Meanwhile, city officials have recently announced significant changes to safety protocols without filling in the details.
In response to recent guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, de Blasio said the city will move from six feet of distancing in schools to three feet, but has not said exactly how that change will be implemented.
The mayor also announced Monday that the city will abandon its current threshold of two unrelated coronavirus cases for closing down individual school buildings and replace it with a different standard, though he did not provide any specifics or commit to providing them before this week’s opt-in deadline.
Here’s how some parents and students are weighing the decision about whether to return to their classrooms.
Projected return: fall
Inocencia Olivo’s fifth grade daughter Chloe is exhausted by remote learning. After full days on Zoom, she’s often up late completing homework assignments.
“It is stressful,” Olivo said. “I do see the burnout.”
Chloe has been learning remotely as the family feared exposing her father, who has a medical condition that makes him more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Olivo, who works in human resources for a charter school, has been able to work remotely. But now that Chloe’s parents are vaccinated, Olivo gave her daughter the option to return to school this month.
Chloe wasn’t interested.
“It was an unexpected answer,” Olivo added. “She bugged us for months to go in person.”
Several reasons prompted the decision. For one, Chloe’s friends at P.S. 344 told her that in-person school is far from normal. Her fifth grade class has been learning from the cafeteria, and there has been little time to play outside or socialize. The pandemic has also made Chloe more reticent to venture out. And as puberty is setting in, it’s an awkward time for her daughter to jump back in, Olivo said.
Still, the family is planning to send her back for in-person learning this fall, barring an unexpected resurgence in the coronavirus.
Cambria Heights, Queens
Projected return: fall
The pandemic has exhausted Melinda Edwards, a Queens mom who lost her job in the hospitality industry. She has spent much of the past year taking care of an infant and supervising her second grade son Dillon’s virtual schooling. Her husband, a police detective, reports to work in person.
Edwards strives to keep Dillon on track, finding YouTube videos to reinforce math concepts, or taking the 7-year-old around the neighborhood — with his 11-month-old sibling in tow — for hands-on learning. After a recent school lesson on seeds, they ventured outside searching for burrs.
Despite the challenges of remote learning, including Dillon’s social isolation, Edwards isn’t planning to send her son back to school until September at the earliest. Among her biggest concerns is potentially exposing her 11-month-old to the virus as well as possible risks for herself and her second grader given they both have asthma. She also doesn’t want to disrupt her son’s schedule as school buildings are often forced to shut down due to virus cases.
“Already I had in my mindset that it would be September,” Edwards said.
She is looking for the coronavirus positivity rate to fall significantly before sending her son back to P.S. 360Q and would feel more comfortable if vaccines were required of school staff. (About 44% of education department employees have received at least one vaccine dose so far, city officials said.)
She trusts her son’s school, but also wants more information about safety procedures, including what the recently announced shift to three feet of social distancing, down from six feet, will look like. How schools will deal with lunch, which will still require students to sit feet apart, she wondered. And what about physical education?
“Before it was a no brainer: you drop your kid off at school, you watch them walk in, you wave goodbye and give them a hug and kiss, and you don’t think about it,” she said. “Now I can just see myself sitting here all day thinking: Did he touch the wrong thing? Did he wash his hands the way he needed to wash his hands? Is everything okay?”
Projected return: undecided
Christine Madhere’s daughter had her heart set on spending her freshman year of high school on campus for as many days as possible. Her mom was less enthusiastic. Madhere has asthma, and worried her daughter might bring the virus home with her, putting her at higher risk for coronavirus complications.
“That was a fight we had,” said Madhere, a single mom who was able to do her nonprofit job as an executive assistant from home. “But I also had to weigh her mental health.”
Madhere ended up relenting. Her daughter Jadeyn, however, changed her mind. After starting the school year at Manhattan’s Art and Design High School, Jadeyn found the social connection and academic support lacking. Many classes were still virtual even when she showed up to the building, and there was little opportunity to make new friends. The 14-year-old decided after a few weeks to remain fully remote.
The family plans to stay remote for the rest of the school year and is undecided about September. Madhere said several factors will likely play a role: whether Jadeyn will be able to get a vaccine before returning, the ability to attend school more than one or two days a week, how well the school communicates its safety protocols, and what remote learning will look like next year.
Although Madhere is vaccinated, she was also recently diagnosed with a medical condition that makes her more susceptible to the virus.
“I think we’re 50/50,” Madhere said. “I definitely do wish there was more information, but I also understand that the situation and the environment is fluid and ever-changing.”
Projected return: fall (pending friends’ decisions)
Amanda Chen’s parents left it up to her to choose between remote learning and in-person classes for her junior year at Manhattan’s School of the Future high school this past fall. Amanda decided to go into the building two days a week.
At first, both of her core class teachers were instructing her in person on the days she was in school. But when one of them began working from home full-time, the class turned virtual, so Amanda was logging into lessons from her laptop while sitting inside of a classroom. She was also growing uncomfortable when students were asked to do group work, feeling that everyone sat too closely together despite social distancing rules. Frustrated by both things, she opted out of in-person learning in November.
Now, five months after reverting to full-time remote learning, she’s not interested in returning to the building during the new opt-in period because it’s late in the school year. But Amanda is leaning toward returning to school this September for senior year.
“I was thinking that I actually do wanna go back to school during the fall because it’s my last year of high school, and I really want to enjoy that,” said the 16-year-old.
She’s found some perks to remote learning, such as waking up “two minutes before class,” but she gets distracted easily and does not feel like she’s learned much from inside her small Chinatown apartment. She’s further encouraged about returning because her age group will soon be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, which she plans to get.
Still, she may stick with remote school next fall if many of her friends decide not to return. As of now, most of them want to remain home because they feel more comfortable there, she said.
“What if my friends don’t want to go back? Is it just gonna be me alone in the class with other classmates that I’m not familiar with? Because that feels lonely,” she said.
Lower East Side, Manhattan
Projected return: undecided
Remote learning has been “extremely difficult” for Lilah Mejia’s five school-age children over the past year, according to Mejia, who relies on her older children to watch over the younger ones as she works in-person for a nonprofit meals program.
Her fifth-grade son, Ra, earned good grades pre-pandemic but is now struggling to turn in assignments, with the same true for her 18-year-old son, River, who was once an A-student. Twelve-year-old Amber has been asking to return to a classroom since last fall. All of her children — who spend half of the month at their father’s home in the Bronx — have “checked out” of remote school and miss their friends. But as of right now, Mejia feels it’s unsafe for them to return.
“I would send my children back to school once New York City has been able to control its positive results of coronavirus,” Mejia said.
Mejia will only be ready for in-person classes if the city logs at most 25 new cases a day with just one or two reported deaths. New York City saw a 7-day average of about 3,300 new daily cases, according to city data from April 2.
COVID-19 transmission within schools has been very low among in-person students and staff, according to a recent study using data from October and November. Mejia did not see that study, she said, but she does grow nervous when she sees the notices her children’s schools send out about building closures due to positive cases.
Mejia fears her children will be exposed to the virus and that her family will be disproportionately impacted, given that Black and Hispanic people are more likely to suffer severe complications from COVID-19.
Mejia also does not want a COVID-19 vaccine and refuses to let her eligible school-age children get one. She worries there could be long-term effects that the public isn’t yet aware of. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has emphasized that vaccines are safe and effective, and severe allergic reactions occur in only 4 to 5 per every million people vaccinated.
At the same time, Mejia hopes that others’ willingness to get the vaccine will drive down the infection rate.
“Do I want my kids to stay home? No, absolutely not, I would love them to return to go back to school,” Mejia said. “Right now it’s not safe, and I don’t know that it’s gonna be safe in September.”
Greenwich Village, Manhattan
Projected return: spring for second grader; TBD for fourth grader
Heather Osterman-Davis has a chronic illness that makes her more susceptible to the coronavirus, so she had no plans to send her 7-year-old daughter Nora and 10-year-old son Owen back to their elementary school this year for any in-person learning.
She also believed that remote learning would provide more consistency than a hybrid schedule, in which school closures were possible on top of switching between remote and in-person days. She is a stay-at-home mom while pursuing freelance projects, so she’s often assisting her children with virtual learning.
As the school year wore on, she noticed that her fourth grader Owen was adapting well, but Nora was growing sadder in isolation. The second grader had been missing her P.S. 41 teachers and friends, and her mental health appeared to suffer.
“It kind of feels like I’m in a house prison, and I really want to go back to school because I want to see my friends and I want to be closer to people,” Nora said.
When Osterman-Davis told Nora about the new opt-in period, the little girl replied, “Sign me up.” The city has yet to announce a return date, but Nora has already planned part of her outfit (a blue headband with glued-on rhinestones) and her lunch (a cream cheese and cucumber sandwich, Cheez-Its, and carrots).
Owen, on the other hand, is more comfortable with online school. One reason, he said, is because he has ADHD, and if he’s in school, he can’t “get up and walk around” when he loses attention as he does at home to help refocus. Owen misses his friends, but he still feels nervous about the coronavirus, and he doesn’t like the idea of wearing a mask all day.
“I don’t think that would be good for myself to go back because it would make me really stressed out and not being able to focus that much,” Owen said. “I don’t wanna go back to the class because it feels safer at home.”
Osterman-Davis and her spouse are now both vaccinated, which is a big reason they agreed to send Nora back. They also feel comfortable with the masking and social distancing required at the school and relatively low coronavirus rates in their neighborhood. But a lot of factors will go into a decision about the fall, including the coronavirus positivity rate, if schools are still testing students and staff, and if younger kids can get vaccines by then. (Currently, federal health officials have only OK’ed the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 16 and up, but younger children are undergoing clinical trials.)
Osterman-Davis is also hoping that a remote option will be available for families who aren’t ready for a full return in the fall, she said.
“I think we’ve seen how fast things can change from OK to awful to good to bad, and without data I don’t know how I would make that decision,” she said.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.