NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: A public school stands closed on April 14, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. According to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City's public schools will remain closed through the end of the academic year because of the coronavirus. But following that statement, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who often disputes with the mayor, stated that the final decision on how long schools will be closed was his. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
New York City schools close as coronavirus cases climb
03:18 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

More than two weeks after the nation’s biggest school district shut down in-person learning, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio welcomed elementary school students back into classrooms on Monday.

Two key factors are driving the latest push to reopen schools for at least some students: younger children have struggled the most with online learning, and younger students also appear to have the lowest rate of coronvirus spread.

New York City elementary school students returned to classrooms Monday after remote-only learning for weeks.

Both factors loomed large as New York City started laying the groundwork for reopening schools.

Kindergarten and elementary students will be the only NYC public school students going back for in-person learning in the foreseeable future. That’s about 190,000 students.

It’s just a fraction of the 1.1 million students enrolled in New York City public schools.

Before the most recent shutdown, about 335,000 students – including middle school and high school students – attended in-person classes. The remainder chose online learning.

But across New York City, public school enrollment – both in-person and online – has dropped by 31,000 students. It mirrors an alarming trend nationwide during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The decision for New York City schools to shut down last month came after the citywide seven-day test positivity rate exceeded 3%.

But the city now plans to abandon that 3% threshold, which the mayor initially introduced at the start of the school year.

After facing heightened pressure from teachers and principals’ unions, both sides agreed to the figure as a threshold for schools to remain open. (Many public health officials have suggested 5% as the test positivity rate at which districts should consider closing schools.)

Despite the city’s current seven-day test positivity rate of 4%, the mayor has highlighted the 0.28% test positivity rate among schools shortly before they closed last month.

A "Welcome Back" sign greets students Monday as NYC elementary school children returned to classrooms.

A significant endorsement for de Blasio came from the United Federation of Teachers. The union said it supports the new plan, as long as rigorous Covid-19 testing was in place.

Schools will move way from hybrid instruction, focusing more on offering families five days a week of in-person learning.

With elementary schools reopening, the city will increase testing to once a week. A consent for testing will be required for all students and staff, with every school participating in weekly random testing for 20% of its in-person population.

The nationwide debate over reopening schools has evolved throughout the pandemic. Early on, many teachers and parents protested schools’ reopening and called for online learning until the virus was under control.

A few months later, those opposed to in-person learning were still vocal about their stance. But many parents started to favor in-person learning, particularly after initial data indicated not much coronavirus spread was happening in schools.

In addition, students have struggled with adjusting to online instruction. Grades and emotional behavior have been impacted.

Now that elementary school students are back in schools, de Blasio said middle school students will be next to return.

On top of that, many families have been forced to choose between helping teach their children and keeping up with their own jobs. For many parents, the latter isn’t an option.

De Blasio also faced pressure from parents who questioned why bars and gyms were allowed to remain open, but not schools.

Of the 335,000 students whose families chose in-person learning, about 43% were Hispanic, nearly 25% White, and about 18% were Black. The remaining students were of Asian or other backgrounds.

As for when middle school and high school students could return, “my goal is to get middle school back as quickly as possible,” de Blasio said. “Practically, that means January. And then when we have that secured, move to high school.”

Improving remote learning is a constant focus of the New York City Department of Education, Chancellor Richard Carranza said.

Carranza said he’s been communicating with colleagues in other large urban school systems. Generally speaking, he said, they’ve noticed “not all children are doing well” in the virtual learning environment.

Carranza said he’s proud of staff who are intervening when they feel a student is not doing as well as they could be.