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Going back to school amid COVID-19 outbreaks means uncertainty and fear for students and teachers, but staying home presents problems too.

USA TODAY

New York City’s schools will delay in-person classes until Sept. 21, averting the threat of a teacher strike — and putting the nation’s largest school system on track to be the only major urban district to start the fall term with kids in classrooms. 

About 37% of New York’s 1.1 million public schoolchildren have elected to learn at home full-time, according to the city’s Department of Education. That means the majority will have a mix of at-home and in-person learning.

Among the 20 largest districts in the country, just New York and Hawaii — a statewide system with schools spread across all the islands— are starting the year with buildings open to students in any capacity. All but 11 of the 50 largest districts are starting the year with 100% remote instruction, according to Education Week magazine.

Mayor Bill de Blasio had staked a political claim to making New York different, after the city was pummeled by COVID-19 in spring. More than 23,000 New Yorkers have died of the virus, including 130 active and retired members of the teachers union.

But the mayor’s office and teachers union leaders could not agree on precautions for reopening classrooms, which left hundreds of thousands of parents and school staff in the dark about how and when school would start this fall.

Pushing back the start of school will give teachers more time to plan and prepare classrooms, said de Blasio, who announced the deal Tuesday. The teachers union plans to spend that time determining whether buildings are safe, union leaders said. Buildings that don’t pass won’t reopen. 

The powerful United Federation of Teachers union had balked at de Blasio’s efforts because of pandemic safety protocols. Among their concerns: the lack of testing for teachers, the lack of protective gear and the condition of school buildings in New York that lack good ventilation. The union’s executive committee inched toward a strike Monday, calling for continued negotiations with the mayor to ensure more precautions and recommending teachers authorize a strike if that didn’t happen.

‘Scared for my life’ but needing a salary: Teachers weigh risks of COVID-19

A key part of the new plan is additional safety measures, including wider availability of COVID-19 testing for teachers and students. Mandatory testing will happen in every school, every month, and additional testing sites will be established, de Blasio said.

If buildings don’t pass a union review ensuring ample supplies of face masks and personal protective equipment, sufficient ventilation and socially distant desks, they will not be able to reopen, according to the deal.

“There may be much more virtual (learning) than anybody wants because of the state of older school buildings and lack of PPE,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national union of which the UFT is an affiliate.

School start uncertainty has been ‘panic-inducing’

New York’s union leaders had said they agreed with de Blasio on the importance of getting children back to school, both to help parents return to work and because 74% of district students are low-income and the most in need of in-person instruction. Child development experts have stressed the importance of getting children back into school for their academic, social and emotional health, as long as it’s safe to do so.

But the weeks of disagreements over how to do so have taken a toll on New York’s parents.

“It has definitely been panic-inducing,” said Naila Rosario, a mother of a rising eighth grader and rising 10th grader who lives in Staten Island. 

Rosario chose the blended learning model for her children so they could socialize with peers in school at least a couple of days a week. But with negligible information about how that would happen, she’s started to feel apprehensive. Now she may switch them to fully remote learning, she said.

Even with the delayed start, New York teachers have little time to figure out how to effectively return to virtual learning. All children will be expected to engage in that again, whether they’re fully remote or on the blended model. De Blasio had wanted to start schools on Sept. 10.

‘This is hell’: Parents and kids hate online learning, but they could face more of it

“The extra 10 days won’t fix the issues,” said Dan Gannon, a teacher at Bronx Leadership Academy II High School.

Meanwhile, the number of students choosing to go virtual keeps rising in Gannon’s school. Initially, just 42 of the school’s 524 students asked for remote learning. Now that’s up to at least 140, he said.  

Other districts, such as Los Angeles, gave themselves more time to plan by announcing earlier this summer that all children would start learning remotely, without setting an end date. Miami-Dade is starting virtually but plans to transition to in-person learning as long as infections stay low.

Chicago Public Schools planned to start with a hybrid model, but when coronavirus cases spiked this summer and the union started murmuring about a safety strike, the city flipped to an all-virtual start.

Teachers are driving reopening plans: Trump says open schools. Teachers say safety first. As cases rise, unions may win.

Still, some New York parents are looking forward to in-person instruction again, even if it’s coming two weeks later than planned. Dave Weiner is the father of children entering first grade and kindergarten. A vaccine may be up to two years away, he said, and if another wave of infections sends people into their homes once more, it’d be nice to start the year with some time in classrooms.

“We’re comfortable sending our kids back as long as cases remain low,” he said.

Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.

Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.

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