New York City High Schools Will Reopen in Pandemic Milestone

New York City will welcome high school students back into classrooms starting on March 22, Mayor Bill de Blasio will announce on Monday, a major milestone in the city’s sometimes halting efforts to resume in-person instruction for some of its one million students.

At a time when instruction in some cities in the Northeast and many on the West Coast remains completely remote for high school and even some elementary school students, New York’s decision to bring back high school students — a vast majority of them low-income, Black and Latino — will be viewed as an important precedent. The city’s public school system is by far the largest in the country.

Reopening high schools will be the first major task faced by the new schools chancellor, Meisha Porter, who will take over from the outgoing chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, on March 15.

About half of the city’s 488 high schools will offer full-time instruction for most or all of their in-person students, while the other half will offer hybrid instruction. The city will also restart high school sports for all students, including those who have decided to learn remotely. The sports season will run through the summer this year, rather than ending with the school year, and students will be required to wear masks at all times.

Even with the return of as many as 55,000 high school students who signed up for in-person classes last fall and have not been in classrooms since November — out of a total population of 282,000 high school students — only about a third of all city students will be receiving any in-person instruction. The remaining 700,000 or so students in the entire city system have chosen to receive instruction remotely, in large part because of lingering concerns about the health risks of the coronavirus.

In other large school districts, including Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago and Seattle, many thousands of high school students have not received any in-person instruction for the past year, and may not regain access to their classrooms for months.

Though some large districts in the South, including Houston, Miami and Broward County in Florida, are open for all grades, other districts have focused on bringing elementary school students back first. That’s because remote learning is particularly challenging for younger children, and because research has found that in-person learning can be safer with younger children than older ones.

Yet high schoolers in New York and across the country have struggled immensely with the social isolation of remote learning. Teenagers have been stuck in their bedrooms for months, unable to see their friends or connect face-to-face with their teachers. Some districts are seeing higher than average student suicide rates.

New York’s push to bring tens of thousands of high school students back into classrooms will allow some graduating seniors to reunite — and bolster the mayor’s record on reopening schools, a major priority for him during the pandemic.

The next phase of school reopenings comes with significant caveats. At least for now, only high school students who signed up for in-person classes last fall will be able to return to classrooms, joining elementary school students, who came back in December, and middle school students, who returned late last month. That means only about a third of the city’s million students are eligible for in-person learning for the remainder of this school year, which ends on June 25.

Some high schoolers who returned to classrooms in the fall may not even come back this spring, either because they have settled into remote learning or because of concerns over a high virus positivity rate and the threat of new variants.

Middle and high school students were able to attend in-person classes for only about six weeks last fall before the entire system closed in November because of rising virus rates. High schools are the last to reopen partly because of a lack of testing capacity, and because some high schools have been used as vaccination centers for New Yorkers.

Even in October and November, some high schoolers had only a few days of in-person learning, rotating between school buildings and virtual lessons in their homes to allow for social distancing.

That hybrid learning model proved challenging for many high schools, and some large schools told students they would be able to offer normal class schedules only if most students learned from home full-time.

Some high schools ended up offering remote instruction even for the children who physically returned to classrooms. Those students sat in front of their laptops, taking online courses in their school buildings rather than their living rooms. It is unclear whether high schools will continue with that model, which frustrated many parents, in the spring.

With the school year more than half over, Mr. de Blasio has focused most of his effort on reopening classrooms, rather than improving online instruction for the hundreds of thousands of students who have chosen to learn at home this school year.

Many parents and educators have said they wish there was more focus on online classes, particularly because nonwhite families have opted out of in-person learning at higher rates than white families.

The mayor has spent months negotiating the gradual reopening of classrooms with the United Federation of Teachers, a powerful force in city politics that has won a slew of safety measures, including a rule that school buildings must close temporarily when two undetected virus cases are found.

That rule has prompted hundreds of 10-day school closures in just the last few weeks alone, which has been extremely disruptive for working parents and their children. Mr. de Blasio has said he would consider changing the rule, but there are no changes to the safety protocols yet.

Though the relationship between Mr. de Blasio and the U.F.T. has become increasingly tense over the last year, the union ultimately sent many of its members back into classrooms long before they were vaccinated. Shots have become a sticking point in reopening for other unions, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said that teacher vaccinations should not be a condition for reopening.

Teachers in New York have had access to the vaccine since January, meaning that many educators returning to high school classrooms will have been inoculated against the virus. But even before any teachers or staff were vaccinated, city schools were relatively safe places, with very low virus transmission in schools and no major outbreaks.

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