“We need to show them: We’re back,” said the head of the principals’ union as children return to school Thursday with Covid restrictions largely ended.
New York City children returned to public schools on Thursday.Credit…Sean Sirota for The New York Times
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New York City’s public school students returned to class on Thursday, hopeful for a more stable year as the nation’s largest school system loosens coronavirus restrictions and resumes the long process of recouping learning losses from the pandemic.
It is crucial for the Department of Education to have a relatively smooth school year: Families have left the system in droves during the past five years, an exodus that accelerated during the pandemic.
At the same time, parents and educators are fighting Mayor Eric Adams over budget cuts they say will hurt schools’ efforts to help students recover after the pandemic.
Efforts to desegregate city schools continue to cause a stir, especially as the city has attempted to expand the gifted and talented program instead of ending it, and a new lottery system for high schools has meant that many incoming high school students didn’t get their first or even their 12th choice.
“There’s this sense of hope that we’re getting back to whatever the new normal is going to look like,” said Mark Cannizzaro, the president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the principals’ union. “On the other end, we have lost a significant number of students. We need to make up for that as quickly and as best as possible.”
He added: “We need to show them: We’re back.”
As students were welcomed back with “Happy First Day” signs on school gates, both sentiments were evident. Gleeful parents expressed a greater sense of confidence after three years of disrupted schooling during the pandemic, yet many retained deep anxieties over the significant challenges ahead.
The academic year will begin as some families, school staff and health experts remain concerned about Covid-19 and the spread of other viruses.
The Department of Education announced in August that it would end many pandemic rules for the 2022-23 school year. Masks are strongly recommended but not required, except for students who are returning to school after testing positive for Covid. Families no longer have to fill out a daily health screening form, and schools will no longer offer PCR testing.
At P.S. 161 Juan Ponce De Leon in the South Bronx on Thursday, the mayor said the return with fewer restrictions represented a major step in New York’s recovery. “This is such a significant moment for us,” he said.
Many children and parents welcomed the changes and shared a collective relief as the morning began. In the Bronx, Knowledge Ramos-Smith, 11, was thrilled to begin fifth grade without “annoying” Covid testing and masking policies.
His mother, Destiny Ramos, was just glad that her son could finally “see what people’s faces look like” in class — and hoped the relaxed rules would mean “more hands-on” time with teachers.
After a wave earlier in the summer, new coronavirus cases in New York City dropped throughout August. Polio risk is low for most students in New York City, and attending school is also unlikely to put students at risk of exposure to monkeypox.
“Last year was very trying and difficult to try to navigate. It feels a little bit more free, less restricted,” said Natasha Coles, a teacher and parent at P.S. 118 Lorraine Hansberry in Queens. Looking at her fifth-grade son, P.J., and first-grade daughter, Ari, she added: “They’re excited about the freedom.”
The main focus this school year will be on learning, said Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers. “The last couple of years were about keeping our school system open and safe,” he said. “Now, it’s really about where we want to take our school system educationally, and what are the things we want to really fight for.”
For many families and educators, one of those top concerns has been whether schools will be equipped to address learning loss and student well-being after the coronavirus pandemic threw schooling into turmoil.
Data on how New York City students are faring academically has been scarce. The state has not yet released the last school year’s test results, and the city has not made public data on how students performed on tests it administered during the school year.
But a survey of more than 100 New York City teachers found that the vast majority believe students are behind academically compared with how they fared before the pandemic. And national test results released Sept. 1 found that 9-year-olds fell far behind students who took the test in years past.
“What I’ve seen is astonishing,” said Aaron Worley, a social worker at P.S. 243 and P.S. 262 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. “Kids in fifth grade that are struggling with their reading, their writing, their sentence comprehension — it’s alarming.”
The schools chancellor, David C. Banks, joined the mayor on Thursday at P.S. 161, the site of one of the city’s new dyslexia programs. He described the issue as a central piece of a larger challenge: “the fundamental way in which we teach our kids how to read.”
The city will begin leaning into “a really different approach to teaching reading,” he said, moving away from so-called balanced literacy methods — and emphasizing a phonetic approach.
Still, teachers and families have argued that schools need more resources to help students regain lost ground. But, while millions of federal pandemic relief dollars have flowed to the city, the money will run out in fiscal year 2025 — the reason the Adams administration says it sliced the school budget by more than $200 million this year.
Principals say the cuts are forcing them to slash teaching positions and enrichment programs they need to help students recover during a school year that was supposed to finally be normal after years of pandemic disruption.
Many families worried on Thursday about what the cuts might mean for their children. Some feared that after-school programs and tutoring could be rolled back, while others were unsure how classrooms would be affected after hundreds of teaching positions were cut from schools ahead of the academic year.
“In this economy, in this recession, in this pandemic, they’re already starting at a disadvantage,” said Kim Naci, whose 14-year-old daughter Ava Ayşe Young began her freshman year at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn this week.
“By cutting funding for public schools, it’s not even a tough climb — there are no stairs,” she said.
The administration said it proposed the cuts because of declining enrollment. About 120,000 families have left the school system over the past five years. The decline in students at traditional district schools has stood in contrast to the enrollment increases of about 7 percent in the last two school years at the city’s charter schools, about 60 percent of which began their first day of classes last month.
On Thursday, Alexia Mayes, a parent at P.S. 73 in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, said that this would be her 10-year-old daughter Khloe’s final year at a traditional public school. “I went to a charter school and it’s a much better environment,” said Ms. Mayes, 29. “Much smaller class sizes — and the teachers are more hands-on compared to public schools.”
The fight over the budget is likely to continue into the school year. After approving the overall city budget in June, the City Council passed a largely symbolic resolution this week calling for the mayor to restore millions of dollars in education funding. Arguments in a case challenging the school budget process are scheduled for Sept. 29.
The mayor on Thursday maintained that the system “must be fiscally smart.”
“This is a historic moment: that the council is fighting against a budget that they approved,” he said. “We are going to make sure every child in every school receives the resources they need.”
The cuts come as the school system is welcoming hundreds of migrant families. Last month, Chancellor Banks announced an initiative to support migrant children; it will include school enrollment assistance as well as language and social and emotional support.
Chancellor Banks, who offered high-fives and head pats to young students as they ran into their school building on Thursday, said during a news conference this week that he was hopeful for “what this school year is going to represent.”
Still, some parents were anxious about their children’s safety.
“It’s not that this school is bad,” said Will Estrada, a parent of a fourth-grader at P.S. 73 in the Bronx. “But crime has risen over the past two years — and I worry for her.”
To address those concerns, Chancellor Banks announced that 200 new school safety agents — uniformed officers who do not carry guns — would start in schools Thursday. About 650 more will be added throughout the year. Officials are also still exploring options for locking school doors after children arrive for the day, he said.
“My back-to-school message for students and families is that we take your physical and emotional safety seriously,” he said.
Nate Schweber, Sadef Ali Kully, Sasha von Oldershausen and Sean Piccoli contributed reporting.
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