This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here:  

Third grader Jaden arrived Monday morning at his Bronx elementary school with a lanyard around his neck holding hand sanitizer.

Like most of the district’s nearly 1 million students, Jaden has not set foot in a classroom in almost 550 days.

New York City threw open its classroom doors on Monday to all of its public school students for the first time since March 2020. After more than 60% of students opted for fully remote instruction last school year, schools were back at full capacity, a moment filled with a mix of relief and trepidation as the coronavirus looms over a third school year.

This year, after initially suggesting a remote option would likely be available, Mayor Bill de Blasio said all students would be required to attend school in person, with some exemptions for students with specific medical issues. 

Alex Villanueva and his son, third grader Jaden, arrive at P.S. 25 in the Bronx on the first day of school. Villanueva is one of several parents who wished for a remote option this school year.  Credit: Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat

Now, the return to school — with social distancing required only “where possible” — is the biggest test yet of de Blasio’s promise that the nation’s largest school system can reopen safely.

“I think everybody is nervous,” Alex Villanueva said, dropping off his third grader, Jaden, at P.S. 25 as the mayor and schools Chancellor Meisha Porter greeted families. Confetti shot through the air as the morning bell rang. 

Though remote instruction was a challenge for Jaden, his dad said he still wished the city offered a virtual option this year.

‘The School is Really Trying’

Parents and teachers were ready to be back in classrooms, the mayor and chancellor emphasized.

“For kids, if they haven’t been in a classroom a year and a half — it’s just, that’s something profoundly wrong,” de Blasio said.

Preliminary attendance was 82.4%, according to the education department. That’s down from pre-pandemic first day figures: 90.1% in 2019, and 89.5% in 2018.

By the end of the first day, officials began the process of closing 50 classrooms in city-run schools or city-funded early childhood centers. That represented about .07% of the city’s roughly 65,000 rooms. The city also initiated the process at 30 charter schools. (Officials noted that the definition of classroom closures can include non-classroom spaces, such as those occupied by facilities staff.)

The first day of school often has some logistical hiccups, and Monday morning had its fair share. The education department’s online form for mandatory COVID health screening crashed, leading some schools to revert to paper forms that caused chaotic scrums of students and parents on sidewalks.

“First day of school, a million kids. Yeah, that’ll overload,” the mayor said of the temporary problem.

Jessica Stowe waves goodbye to her son on his first day of kindergarten at P.S. 184 Shuang Wen in Manhattan. Credit: Christina Veiga / Chalkbeat

To get ready for kindergarten at P.S. 184 Shuang Wen on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Jessica Stowe had her son practice wearing two masks. She knows the school has taken precautions, such as upgrading ventilation and providing extra air purifiers in classrooms.

So after a year of pre-kindergarten online, Stowe peered through a fence into the school courtyard where her son had lined up with his new classmates for his first day of school in person.

Stowe waved with the excitement of a fan who just caught a glimpse of their favorite celebrity. Her husband held his phone above his head to snap photos in the gaps of the chain links.

How were they feeling?

“I guess nervous but thankful there’s a mask mandate,” Stowe said. “I think the school is really trying.”

Many families said they were glad to send their children back to school buildings, as more employers are requiring in-person work and remote learning has often been difficult for parents and students to manage. Physical classrooms promise more academic support, a chance to socialize, and access to special education services that are difficult to provide remotely.

Others, fearful of the more contagious delta variant and elevated infection rates, returned to school with feelings of anxiety and frustration. Some planned to boycott the first day of school in protest of the city’s decision to require in-person attendance.

‘Rather Be in Online School’

Jimmy Wang wasn’t sure how to feel about his daughter’s first day of kindergarten at Shuang Wen. They were the first in line at the entrance.

Wang said he thinks his daughter will learn more in a classroom, but he is still worried about her getting sick. He has been watching the news closely in other parts of the country where schools have already reopened, and he is alarmed by the rising cases among children.

“If I had a choice, I’d rather be in online school,” he said.

The crowd outside the school swelled as students waited for the bell to ring, clogging the sidewalk. Parents grabbed their children by the hand and pushed through, trying to find the correct entrance for each grade. 

Last year, so many students at Shuang Wen opted for remote learning that the school was able to reopen full time for those who chose to send their kids in person. This year, with no option to learn online, there was little room for social distancing.

Children return to in-class learning at the Bedford Village School in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Some of the youngest students sobbed outside. One gripped the gates and refused to enter. Another ran screaming from the building, only to be intercepted by parents. The bell rang at 8:20 a.m., but students were still streaming into the building shortly before 9 a.m.

There were other signs of trepidation. One student showed up in gloves and goggles, along with his mask, and a track jacket zipped to his neck. He looked ready to work in a lab rather than enter a classroom, but the extra protective gear didn’t dampen his spirits.

“Long time no see, buddy,” he said cheerfully to classmates, before asking who he thought might be able to run faster on the playground later.

Rules and Precautions

City officials have vowed to protect students and educators with a mix of safety measures, including universal masking, ventilation improvements, and two air purifiers in every room

In a last-minute directive, parents or other visitors who want to enter school buildings are required to show proof of at least one vaccine dose, education department officials said, though school staff will not be required to be vaccinated until Sept. 27. 

Parents of 3- or 4-year-olds attending pre-K will be allowed to drop their children off in classrooms without showing proof on the first day of school.

As the city has rolled out safety procedures, there has been intense debate about whether they are protective enough — or even too aggressive. Some educators and families remain concerned about whether classrooms will be adequately ventilated and worry about lunch periods where students will congregate unmasked.

Students arrive for the first day of class at Edward R. Murrow High School. Credit: Alyssa Katz/THE CITY

Some have also criticized the decision to significantly scale back random coronavirus testing in schools, with only 10% of unvaccinated students and staff tested every other week (and with no requirement that students consent to testing).

In other areas, some parents and observers have criticized the city for being too cautious, especially when it comes to forcing students to quarantine when students or staff test positive.

Unlike last year, there is no specific number of positive cases that will force a school building to shut down, but a single virus case can shutter elementary school classrooms, a rule that is more conservative than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations

Vaccinated middle and high school students will not be forced to quarantine as long as they are not experiencing symptoms.

First COVID Case Reported

By noon, Chalkbeat learned that letters had been sent out to school communities about one positive COVID case at a Bronx school serving middle and high school students and one possible case at a K-8 school in Queens. Education department officials did not immediately say how many district classrooms were closed, if any, on the first day back.

The city’s charter schools offer an early glimpse of how common classroom closures could be, even if infection rates don’t rise. At Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network, 22% of classrooms have been forced to temporarily close since the network reopened to students on Aug. 2. Overall, hundreds of charter school classrooms across the city have already shuttered.

There is a debate across New York City about the school district’s safety procedures, including testing and ventilation.  Credit: Gabby Jones/Chalkbeat

Dozens of people lined up more than an hour before the first bell rang at Pan American International High School in Elmhurst, which exclusively serves new immigrant students.

Principal George Badia and his staff repeatedly called out “Pan American? This way!” since the building is home to other schools.

Badia occasionally reminded students to pull up their masks before going inside, while staffers fist bumped and greeted familiar faces. Staff handed out paper health screeners to every student who walked up, explaining it to some in Spanish, as some kids gathered in groups to fill it out.

Many parents accompanied their children to school— the most that Badia had ever seen on the first day, he said, particularly parents of new freshmen.

“They want to make sure they leave them in good hands,” Badia said, who said he jotted down parents’ names in order to set up a tour of the building for them.

The school also saw about eight children and their parents walk up to the school in order to enroll — slightly more than they usually see on the first day. 

Enrollment centers were operating remotely until now, which could be why more families showed up in person on Monday in an attempt to enroll their kids, said Karla Piña, a social worker at the school.

‘Make New Friendships’

Junior Lorenny Duran, who hadn’t been inside her school building since freshman year, said she felt a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Remote learning was “horrible” because she struggled to keep up with school work while also handling chores at her Corona home and babysitting her younger brother.

Asked what she’s hoping for this school year, Lorenny said “maybe make new friendships and have a routine for school.”

Pan American High School junior Lorenny Duran waits for school to start as other students fill out COVID screening forms.  Credit: Gabby Jones/Chalkbeat

When classrooms shut down, elementary school students will shift to remote learning. Middle and high school students, whose classrooms may be fractured with some vaccinated students learning in person, will be entitled to “office hours” on the days they’re at home.

Still, there are unanswered questions that could shape the school year. Although school staff are required to be vaccinated by Sept. 27, a significant minority of educators have yet to receive their first dose. 

An arbitration decision announced Friday paves the way for teachers to seek some medical and religious exemptions to the mandate with the city providing non-classroom assignments. Others who refuse to be vaccinated will be removed from the city’s payroll. It’s unclear if there will be enough substitutes to fill in the gaps.

It’s also unclear when vaccines could be approved for students under age 12 who represent the majority of the city’s students but are currently ineligible. That vaccine approval could further reduce the situations in which students are required to quarantine.

‘Make the Best of It’

Pan American junior Denilson Abreu had signed up for hybrid learning last year, so unlike about half of his peers, he’d been in the building.

He was happy that everyone was finally back, but he also felt “panicked.” With everyone in school, he worried he could get sick and infect his family.

He recently got vaccinated, he said.

On the flip side, learning from home was “the worst” because he didn’t feel like he learned much, he said. It was hard to maintain a schedule, so he’s hoping the building won’t close again as it did last year when COVID cases jumped last winter.

To students who are returning for the first time since March 2020, Denilson had advice: “Be happy, because we don’t know how long it’s gonna last, so just make the best of it.”