Additional reporting by Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting

This article is part of an ongoing collaboration between Chalkbeat and THE CITY.

A stereo blasted pop and reggaeton as families filed Thursday morning onto the basketball courts outside of P.S. 503 in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park to line up for their new classes. Some children ran into the arms of friends or favorite staffers as others stayed close to parents before the building doors opened.

“You ready for school?” assistant principal Kenia Otero-Laro asked 5-year-old Angel, who started a bilingual kindergarten class on Thursday. 

“No,” Angel responded, smiling and shuffling behind his mother to hide. 

Ten-year-old Kryztin Valerdi didn’t know anyone in his new fifth grade class besides the teacher, but he wasn’t worried. 

“If I’m being for real, I feel excited,” he said. “You do activities, and you get to know other people.” 

As the city welcomed back nearly 900,000 children, it was the first time in three years that schools were no longer distancing students, enforcing mask-wearing, or testing children and staff for COVID. Beyond the typical joy and nerves among families and educators on New York City’s first day of school, there was a more somber reality: due to declining enrollment projections, a majority of the city’s schools have seen cuts to Fair Student Funding, which principals use to cover teacher salaries and create enrichment programs

P.S. 503 — where last year nearly 60% of students were learning English as a new language and 92% came from low-income families — saw about one-fifth of its budget cut. It is, like many schools across the five boroughs, grappling with how to do more with less this year. 

Mayor Eric Adams cut roughly $372 million across all schools, according to Comptroller Brad Lander. While the city softened some of that financial blow with federal stimulus dollars, schools were still forced to cut staffers and other programs. Meanwhile, the city has $650 million in unspent stimulus money from last year, as of mid-August, Lander said, which was “more than enough” to cover the cuts. 

Adams and schools Chancellor David Banks, have not budged: They’ve said that the gradual cuts are necessary now so that schools are not hit with a sudden funding drop down the road if student enrollment keeps falling.

“This is a historical moment that the council is fighting against a budget that they approved,” Adams said. “We are going to make sure that every child and every school receives the resources that they need.”

Budget Battle Continues

During a press conference marking the first day of school, teachers union president Michael Mulgrew described a political blame game between the mayor and the City Council, which overwhelmingly approved the city’s budget but is now pushing the mayor to restore cuts. 

“You tell children, ‘Oh, it’s a political fight, that’s why we’re doing this,’” Mulgrew said outside of P.S. 51 in Hell’s Kitchen, which saw a 14% cut. “It makes no sense.”

The budget cuts sparked outrage over the summer, with parents and educators trailing Adams across the city in protest. A lawsuit challenging the budget approval process is due back in appeals court on Sept. 29 after the city pushed back on a lower court’s decision to redo the education department’s budget. If their budgets end up increasing, school leaders told Chalkbeat they would welcome more money, especially to hire staff, but doing that after the year begins can be tricky.

School budgets have long been tied to enrollment. Like other systems in the nation, New York City has seen significant drops in the student rosters. New York City’s public school enrollment in kindergarten through 12th grade (excluding charters) declined 9.5% since the pandemic began, and officials are expecting 30,000 fewer K-12 students this fall compared to last year. 

The first day of school at P.S. 503 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Credit: Gabby Jones for Chalkbeat

The Department of Education has projected just under 630 students would enroll at P.S. 503, about 100 fewer students than last year, though the school’s principal, Nina Demos, is expecting about 40 more students than projected. The cut resulted in large class sizes in some grades and uncertainty about extracurricular activities, which are a big draw for Maribel Aburto, who has a first-grader and a third-grader at the school. 

She’s not yet sure what activities will be available this year. Until last week, Demos did not have the funding to offer extracurriculars, so she’s now planning out what the school can provide, Demos told Chalkbeat. 

“I feel sad because, you know, when the budget is cut for schools, they don’t have a lot of support,” Aburto said. 

Still, those cuts were not enough to sway Aburto from P.S. 503, which along with schools citywide has seen enrollment drop over the past several years. In fact, Aburto drives her children in from Staten Island, to which her family relocated from Sunset Park about four years ago. 

“I love the school,” Aburto said. 

New Immigrants Enrolling

At the same time city schools are enrolling fewer students, they are also gaining an influx of new immigrants seeking asylum from Central and South American countries, some of whom may need intensive support.

Brandon and his wife, Luli, were two of the dozens of parents pressing their faces up to the chain link fence of P.S. 145 on the Upper West Side, the Bloomingdale School, trying to keep track of their children as the kids were clumped into groups with their teachers. 

It’s the first day of school in the city, but for their 5-year-old son, Lucas, it’ll also be his first day of school in the United States. 

The family is part of the now more than 7,000 asylum seekers, according to the Department of Social Services, who have entered the city in recent months and stayed in a city homeless shelter. As of mid-August, DSS had estimated that at least 1,000 children from asylum-seeking families would be entering the city’s school system this school year.

In response to the influx, the Adams administration announced Project Open Arms, geared toward enrolling migrant children in school. The project reaches families at shelters to get children enrolled while also providing families with language support, transportation, school supplies and more. 

Brandon and his family, who did not wish to share their last names, have been in New York City for a week, after a journey from their native Colombia to the U.S.-Mexico border. A church offered the family a free flight from Texas to New York City, and they’ve since been staying at Park West Hotel, which the city has been using as a shelter. 

Lucas, who is in first grade, will participate in the dual-language program offered at the school, learning in Spanish and English. Brandon said the school had told him they would provide his child with uniform and supplies, and the family was offered transportation, but they opted to walk the couple of blocks to the school. He said enrollment was surprisingly easy.

“I didn’t think it would be so simple,” Brandon said in Spanish. “It turned out to be very simple.”

Another asylum-seeker, Rosysbelth Linares, said she was able to enroll her three children with ease at P.S. 145, after someone from the city asked them to fill out paperwork at the Park West Hotel. 

Asylum seeker Rosybelth Lianres picked up her daughters, Sara, 6, and Skarleth, 4, on the first day of school at P.S. 145 on the Upper West Side, Sept. 8, 2022. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Her daughters Sara, 6, and Skarleth, 4, started school Thursday, while her 3-year-old boy, Khenjervys, will begin 3K Friday, after a brief scramble to find an open slot. 

After nearly two months traveling from their native Venezuela, Linares, her husband and children are settling into life in New York City, having just arrived last Monday. Linares said she’s happy to see her children going to school. 

“I feel super good because they won’t be in a hotel all the time,” she said in Spanish. “They’ll socialize with other kids.”

Pandemic’s Lasting Impacts

COVID mitigations are largely gone, but some staff and students remain concerned about the virus and are continuing to mask. Educators are also worried about other long-lasting impacts of the pandemic on student mental health and academic performance.

Jermaine Hall, a maintenance worker for the city’s housing authority, said he wasn’t worried about the coronavirus as he dropped off his daughter for her first day of preschool at P.S. 161 in the Bronx. 

“I’m not really too shaken up about it because I feel like the worst is over,” he said, adding that he was comforted by the fact that the school has a health clinic on campus.

His 4-year-old daughter, who was attending school for the first time, has already mastered her letters and colors, though Hall said he wants her to have more opportunities to socialize. “I’m excited that she gets to be around the kids because she’s an only child.”

Last year, many teachers reported that students had shorter fuses, less stamina, and less focus. Though the education department said that every school has at least one social worker or access to mental health services at school-based health clinics, educators say more is needed to support students — and many school staffers continue to struggle with burnout after the stress of the past few years. 

This year, the city plans to spend $1.8 billion in stimulus funding on schools. Just over 12% of that, or $225 million, will go toward academic recovery efforts and special education services, though that program won’t be automatically available to all students with disabilities as it was last year. Another $79 million will go toward social workers, guidance counselors and school psychologists, according to the education department. 

The city received a total $7 billion in relief funding, of which $2.6 billion has been spent so far, according to Lander. The money can be used through the 2024-2025 school year.

Superintendent David Pretto, of Brooklyn’s District 20, said schools were seeing a mix of challenging and “hopeful” trends with academics, based on assessments that schools gave to students. (The education department has declined to publicly release the results of those screeners.)

Though principals faced a difficult summer, including navigating budget cuts that largely impacted staffing, Pretto was hopeful that those challenges are “not felt by the kids.” 

“Is it perfect? No,” Pretto said, standing outside of P.S. 503’s basketball courts as families streamed in. “But it’s never perfect, and all things considered, considering the summer that everybody went through, and the impact of the pandemic, I’m overall happy where we’re at.”