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COVID-19, One Year Later: New York City schools tackle its biggest educational challenges

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

Original article written by Alejandra O'Connell-Domenech for the Bronx Times.

A year ago, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Just a few days later, Mayor Bill de Blasio begrudgingly ordered a system-wide shutdown of the city’s 1,800 public schools days amid a state of emergency. At the time, de Blasio said that he worried the schools would not reopen during the school year if he had them shut down. Initially, he ordered schools closed — and all instruction shifted online — through late April 2020, but as it turned out, the schools did not reopen their buildings for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year. Shifting all public school instruction to remote learning proved a vast challenge for the city within the ever-growing health crisis. Many students struggled with the transition to remote and those that had access to devices such as laptops and devices and stable WiFi found it difficult to engage in online classes. This was especially burdensome on the city's over 100,000 homeless students, who were already suffering from major academic and health disparities.

After the first school year amid the pandemic came to a close, city officials announced plans for a hybrid learning model in the fall that would allow students to either continue to take their classes fully remote or come to return to school for some days of the week. With cases in NYC considerably low, schools reopened in September despite concerns over health and safety and severe teacher shortage caused by the model. Data revealed that only roughly 280,00 children had attended in-person classes since schools reopening in the fall which fell far short of the mayor’s projected 700,000. Throughout the summer and early fall, Mayor de Blasio repeatedly told NYC public school parents still unsure if they wanted to send their children back into classrooms that they would be given multiple opportunities throughout the fall to opt-out of fully remote learning and into blended. But parents, who by the time September came were already disillusioned with the mayor and chancellor’s handling of schools, were dealt another blow when officials suddenly announced that they would be given only one more chance to enroll their child in blended learning during the 2020-21 school year.

As part of Mayor de Blasio’s state-approved reopening plan, if the overall COVID positivity rate in the city reached 3% all public schools would again shut down. In mid-November, the positivity rate reached 3%, interrupting the education of the just under 300,000 blended learning students then forced into remote-only classes. Although officials had already closed and reopened schools once before, officials did not have a plan in place to reopen schools en masse for a second time — with Mayor de Blasio only able to say that COVID-19 testing would play a much bigger role the second time around. Carranza and the mayor said that they hoped to reopen middle schools after the winter holiday. But officials did not announce plans to bring back the over 60,000 middle school students enrolled in blended learning into early February. Middle school students did return to in-person instruction on Feb. 25.

Although students are a month into the spring semester, the future of high schools still remains a mystery as the city works towards a fully reopened school system by September. Late February, Carranza abruptly resigned, announcing Bronx superintendent Meisha Ross Porter would take his place, the first Black woman to hold the position in the city’s history. During the announcement, Porter said that the city is “ready to go” on reopening high schools. With a vaccine now in place and being distributed en mass across NYC, the Department of Education and the mayor are now developing a plan for the next school year in September. As de Blasio has said, he hopes it will resemble a more normal school year like the ones students experienced before the pandemic — with children and teachers in the classroom throughout the year, learning with each other.

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