This week marked the first day of school in New York City, the largest school district in the country. Mayor Bill de Blasio held a news conference last week showing off air purifiers, stacks of child-sized surgical masks and electrostatic sprayers. The message? "I say to all parents ... the best place for your kid is in school."
Natalya Murakhver agrees. She's a mother of a 7-year-old going into the second grade and an 11-year-old starting middle school on Manhattan's Upper West Side. She led a group of parents who sued the district last spring to open up schools full time. "I think the mayor is doing a great job and really trying to emphasize the importance and safety of in-person instruction," she says, "which we've known for a very, very long time."
Farah Despeignes, who has two sons in middle school, disagrees: "Parents all over the city feel that the remote option is best for them." She is president of the Bronx Parent Leaders Advocacy Group, and she says parents from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan are organizing protests, discussing school boycotts and even lawsuits because they want to keep their children remote.
She says these parents have lost faith in the city's department of education, or DOE. "They do not trust the DOE. They do not trust that they will do what it says it is going to do, because they know from decades of experience that the DOE has never done right by them and their kids."
Earlier in the summer, schools across the country were envisioning a return to near-normal operations. Cases of COVID-19 were down, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had relaxed distancing requirements for schools, and 12-year-olds were getting vaccines. There was even talk of vaccinated teachers and students removing masks.
A surge in remote learning options
Then came the highly infectious delta strain, combined with restrictions easing around the country. Cases surged among unvaccinated people, including children.
Now, for the third school year in a row, schools are changing their plans on short notice — and they're inevitably leaving some parents unhappy. Polls suggest the vast majority of parents nationwide want their children back in person. Parents of color are more likely to be hesitant.
The Center on Reinventing Public Education has been tracking the plans of 100 of the largest and most prominent school districts across the country, which together educate around 1 in 5 students nationwide. They found the following shifts in July and August:
- A big increase in mask mandates — 75 of those 100 districts now require them for all.
- Vaccine mandates are on the rise as well. Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland and Seattle now require all school staff to get vaccinated without a testing alternative. And Los Angeles and Culver City, Calif., are requiring all students over 12 to be vaccinated.
- The number of districts offering remote learning doubled in a matter of weeks. Now, 92 of the 100 districts have some such plan; 56 of the districts offer remote learning to anyone who wants it.
As it was last year, New York City has become an embattled outlier among big-city school districts for its emphasis on in-person school. Remote learning will be available only to a relatively few students deemed "medically fragile" because of serious conditions, like cystic fibrosis or leukemia. "Our Medically Necessary Instruction program will provide immunocompromised students with a high-quality education and support from caring adults," Sarah Casasnovas of the Department of Education told NPR.
Selena Carrión, who lives in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx, has a daughter, Aurora, going into kindergarten. Aurora had a liver transplant when she was around a year old. Carrión has been trying to get her qualified as medically fragile for home instruction, but the process, she says, has been opaque. That's true even though Carrión herself used to teach at her daughter's school.
While Carrión wishes her daughter could be with other students in person, she doesn't trust that the school building will be safe for her. They have portable classrooms and overcrowding. The cafeteria is in the basement, which limits opportunities for ventilation while children are eating. And, "even this past year with only some people in person, we constantly were getting shut down for outbreaks and staff had to constantly quarantine throughout the entire school year."
As this third disrupted school year gets under way, parents are worried, confused, tired and fed up. And both sides seem farther apart than ever in their views.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In mathematics, the Greek letter delta means change. And the delta strain of the coronavirus means schools around the country are, once again, having to make enormous changes at the last minute, like adding back remote learning. New York City, the largest school district in the country, starts today. And as NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports, it's one of a few holdouts against offering a remote option for many families who remain hesitant.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There's a crossing guard. She's going to help us cross.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good morning.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good morning.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Nearly 1 million children headed back to New York City's public schools today, including these kindergartners in Brooklyn.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Unintelligible).
KAMENETZ: At a press conference last week, New York City's mayor, Bill de Blasio, showed off air purifiers and child-sized surgical masks. The message - school is safe. So, please, come back in person.
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BILL DE BLASIO: I say to all parents as someone, myself, who was a public school parent, the best place for your kids to be is in school.
KAMENETZ: Earlier in the summer, that was a much easier call. Cases were down. The CDC had relaxed distancing requirements for schools. And students as young as 12 years old were getting vaccines. In a big contrast to fall 2020, schools were planning on opening up full-time almost everywhere. Then came delta. Cases surged among unvaccinated people, notably including children.
Bree Dusseault is a researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. She's been tracking the reopening plans of 100 of the largest school districts across the country, which together educate around 1 in 5 students. She says that at the end of July...
BREE DUSSEAULT: Out of those 100 districts, less than half had planned to offer remote learning.
KAMENETZ: After the delta wave really got going, that number more than doubled in just a few weeks. Districts like Dallas pivoted fast.
DUSSEAULT: Dallas on that Thursday evening announced a remote option with a deadline on that Monday morning at 10 a.m. And by Monday at 10 a.m., over 1,600 students had signed up.
KAMENETZ: Some of these districts made remote learning available only to students who were too young to be vaccinated, and a few are restricting remote learning only to a handful of, quote, "medically fragile students," who have conditions like cystic fibrosis or leukemia. New York City is one of them. That's good news to Natalya Murakhver, a mother of two public school students in the Upper West Side. She led a group of parents who sued the district last spring to open up schools full-time.
NATALYA MURAKHVER: I think the mayor is doing a great job and really trying to emphasize the importance and safety of in-person instruction, which we've known for a very, very long time.
KAMENETZ: But Selena Carrion in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx feels very differently. Her daughter, Aurora, is going into kindergarten, and...
SELENA CARRION: She's definitely not going to start on the first day of school at this point.
KAMENETZ: Aurora had a liver transplant when she was around a year old. Carrion has been trying to get her qualified as medically fragile, but the process, she says, has been opaque. That's true, even though Carrion herself used to teach at her daughter's school. While Carrion wishes her daughter could be with other students in person, she doesn't trust that the school building will be safe for her.
CARRION: Even this past year, with only some people in person, we constantly we're getting shut down for outbreaks, and staff had to constantly quarantine throughout the entire school year.
KAMENETZ: Quarantines are yet another reason schools are having to rethink remote instruction this year. According to the tracking website Burbio, just since school started this fall, nearly 1,700 entire schools in 38 states have closed down for a week or more because of outbreaks. Teachers can struggle to keep students on track with these unpredictable quarantines, Dusseault says.
DUSSEAULT: Each school year, the school system and families continue to be surprised by some new component of this pandemic.
KAMENETZ: We're beginning the third COVID school year, and there's no end to the changes in sight.
Anya Kamenetz, NPR News, New York.
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