NYC Plans To Reopen Public High Schools On March 22nd

The de Blasio administration announced on Monday that New York City’s public high schools will reopen March 22nd, four months after they were closed due to a sharp increase in coronavirus cases. 

About 55,000 students in grades 9-12 who have chosen in-person learning are expected to return to buildings, and about half of them will be able to attend school five days a week, or close to it. Roughly 17,000 high school employees must also return; they are due back March 18th and 19th. 

Officials said the Public School Athletic League–PSAL–will also return for practice in mid-April, with games permitted in May. Both in-person and remote students can play, and the season will extend through the summer. No spectators will be allowed, and athletes will have to wear masks and undergo weekly testing.

High school buildings have been closed since November when Mayor Bill de Blasio shuttered the entire system when the COVID-19 average positivity rate exceeded 3%. After an agreement with the teachers union to expand on-campus coronavirus testing, pre-k, elementary and District 75 schools reopened in December, and middle schools reopened last month. 

Studies suggest the rate of COVID-19 cases and transmission increases as children get older. In December, National Geographic reported, “a critical shift appears somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12.”

According to the city’s Department of Education, a total of 315,000 students have chosen to return to classrooms. In-person students continue to comprise a small slice of the student body. The majority of students–roughly 645,000–have chosen to learn remotely from home. Some of their parents are eager for another chance to opt back in, but officials have not yet announced the opportunity to do so.

Stephen Simons, a government and economics teacher at Brooklyn Collaborative Studies in Carroll Gardens, said he’s eager to be reunited with his in-person students. “I was a big supporter of returning to the building in the fall,” he said. “I thought we did a great job supporting kids’ learning in person in the fall, and I really look forward to doing a great job for my students in the spring.” Simons said he considers in-person learning to be better for students’ academic progress and mental health.

But many parents question just how many high schools will be able to offer in-person instruction when they reopen their doors. The staffing challenges that come with hybrid learning have been especially difficult on the high school level, because there are so many electives and specialized courses.

“We’re certainly happy with the announcement but we’re also skeptical and anxious because this has been such a disaster since the start,” said Jeff Kitt, whose son is a sophomore at Eleanor Roosevelt High School on the Upper East Side.

“When my son was able to go to school … he was going to a study hall, a homeroom situation, once or twice a week for an hour and a half,” he said. “We were flabbergasted. This is what you call school opening? … My wife and I are at a point where as much as we want kids to be back in school full time, at least for the past couple of months being fully remote they’ve had a routine.

Kitt said the de Blasio Administration might “be better off forgetting this year and doing everything possible to plan for a full opening in September.”

The return of high schools and sports come at a pivotal moment in the reopening saga, locally and nationally. Meisha Porter, a Bronx executive superintendent will officially take the reins of the city’s largest school system at the end of this week, when Chancellor Richard Carranza steps down

Meanwhile, the Biden Administration kicked off a concerted push to reopen schools across the country last week, as U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona joined First Lady Jill Biden at a school in Connecticut to promote reopening. President Joe Biden also announced a plan to prioritize teachers for the vaccine. In New York City, school teachers and staff have gotten priority for the vaccine since January, though city officials have not yet said how many public school teachers have been vaccinated.

The announcement about high schools reopening also comes as the city approaches a grim anniversary.  It has been nearly a year since the school system first shut down because of the pandemic, and life-as-usual abruptly ground to a halt. 

De Blasio has said repeatedly that reopening schools is key to the city’s recovery, and that most students do best in the classroom. “Kids have gone through hell here, and it’s not healthy for kids to be out of school,” he said on the Brian Lehrer Show Friday.

New York City was the first big city school system to reopen last fall. But for many, the reopening process has been sputtering at best, with positive cases causing hundreds of schools to shut down at a time. Some parents are lobbying the administration to change a rule that schools close whenever there are two unlinked cases in a building. De Blasio has said a change to that rule is coming. 

Speaking on the Brian Lehrer Show, the mayor also said he believes the end of hybrid learning is in sight: he envisions welcoming all students back to school buildings full time in September, although the city plans to offer an all-remote option as well.

News of the reopening of high schools began leaking out last week when custodians were given a heads up and a student found a draft letter on a school system site.