New York City will reopen its schools for younger children, overturning an earlier policy that frustrated parents and which critics said prioritised businesses over education.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the change on Sunday, stating that schools would reopen their doors for children in elementary school beginning December 7. In-person classes for special education students will resume three days later.
Those students are being prioritised because they have been shown to be less at risk of infection, and because of the childcare burden they pose for parents.
Mr de Blasio did not say when the nation’s largest public school system, with 1.1m students, would restart in-person classes for older children in middle school and high school. For the time being, they will continue with remote learning.
“We want our kids in the classroom for as much time as possible. Our families do, too. We’ll work to make it happen,” the mayor said.
New York City’s public schools have presented one of the most contentious challenges for the city and state officials throughout the coronavirus pandemic, with Mr de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo often clashing. Parents and the teachers union have also found themselves at odds.
After a haphazard closure during the first wave of the pandemic in March, Mr de Blasio hailed the schools’ staggered reopening, beginning in late September, as a milestone in the city’s recovery. But the mayor closed them again earlier this month as the virus rebounded.
The move was triggered by a previously agreed policy to shutter schools if a seven-day rolling average of positive Covid-19 tests in the city rose above 3 per cent. That infuriated many parents, who noted that positive cases within schools were substantially lower than the city at large.
Some critics accused Mr de Blasio of bowing to the restaurant industry and its aggressive lobbying campaign, by permitting in-door dining while closing schools, which have been far safer.
The issue has been particularly emotive for working parents. Many are not only concerned about the quality of their children’s instruction during the pandemic but also rely on public schools as a means of childcare that allows them to do their jobs.
Under its new plan, the city will do away with the 3 per cent threshold, which Mr de Blasio had previously said he was bound to honour in order to maintain public confidence.
The mayor also said schools would move from monthly to weekly testing of students and staff. The aim is to take a more pinpoint approach that allows administrators to identify particular schools with rising infections and then adjust accordingly.
The shift appears to be consistent with advice given earlier in the day by Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who told ABC News: “Close the bars and keep the schools open.”