NEW YORK – New York City’s public school students returned to class last Thursday, hopeful for a more stable year as the nation’s largest school system loosens coronavirus restrictions and resumes the long process of recouping learning losses from the pandemic.
It is crucial for the Department of Education to have a relatively smooth school year: Families have left the system in droves during the past five years, an exodus that accelerated during the pandemic.
At the same time, parents and educators are fighting Mayor Eric Adams over budget cuts they say will hurt schools’ efforts to help students recover after the pandemic.
Efforts to desegregate city schools continue to cause a stir, especially as the city has attempted to expand the gifted and talented programme instead of ending it. And a new lottery system for high schools has meant that many incoming high school students did not get their first or even their 12th choice.
Mr Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the principals union, said: “There’s this sense of hope that we’re getting back to whatever the new normal is going to look like. On the other end, we have lost a significant number of students. We need to make up for that as quickly and as best as possible.”
He added: “We need to show them – we’re back.”
As students were welcomed back with “Happy First Day” signs on school gates, both sentiments were evident. Gleeful parents expressed a greater sense of confidence after three years of disrupted schooling during the pandemic, yet many retained deep anxieties over the significant challenges ahead.
The academic year will begin as some families, school staff and health experts remain concerned about Covid-19 and the spread of other viruses, such as polio and monkeypox.
The Department of Education announced last month that it would end many pandemic rules for the 2022-23 school year. Masks are strongly recommended but not required, except for students who are returning to school after testing positive for Covid-19. Families no longer have to fill out a daily health screening form and schools will no longer offer polymerase chain reaction testing.
At PS 161 in the Bronx last Thursday, the mayor said the return with fewer restrictions represented a major step in New York’s recovery. “This is such a significant moment for us,” Mr Adams said.
Many children and parents welcomed the changes and shared a collective relief as the morning began. In the Bronx, Knowledge Ramos-Smith, 11, was thrilled to begin fifth grade without “annoying” Covid-19 testing and masking policies.
His mother, Ms Destiny Ramos, was just glad that her son could finally “see what people’s faces look like” in class – and hoped the relaxed rules would mean “more hands-on” time with teachers.
After a wave earlier in the summer, new coronavirus cases in New York City dropped throughout August, according to The New York Times’ data dashboard. Polio risk is low for most students in New York City because vaccination against polio is required to attend schools in New York state.
And while a handful of children across the nation have been diagnosed with monkeypox, the illness has primarily spread among adults. Attending school is unlikely to put students at risk of monkeypox exposure.
“Last year was very trying and difficult to try to navigate. It feels a bit more free, less restricted,” said Ms Natasha Coles, a teacher and parent at PS 118 Lorraine Hansberry in Queens. Looking at her fifth-grade son, P.J., and first-grade daughter, Ari, she added: “They’re excited about the freedom.”
The main focus this school year will be on learning, said Mr Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers. “The last couple of years were about keeping our school system open and safe,” he said. “Now, it’s really about where we want to take our school system educationally and what are the things we want to really fight for.”
For many families and educators, one of those top concerns has been whether schools will be equipped to address learning loss and student well-being after the coronavirus pandemic threw schooling into turmoil.
Data on how New York City students are faring academically has been scarce. The state has not yet released the last school year’s test results, and the city has not made public data on how students performed on tests it administered during the school year.
But a survey of more than 100 New York City teachers found that the vast majority believe students are behind academically compared with how they fared before the pandemic. And national test results released on Sept 1 found that nine-year-olds fell far behind students who took the test in years past.
“What I’ve seen is astonishing,” said Mr Aaron Worley, a social worker at PS 243 and PS 262 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. “Kids in fifth grade who are struggling with their reading, their writing, their sentence comprehension – it’s alarming.”
Teachers and families have argued that schools need more resources to help students regain lost ground. But while millions of federal pandemic relief dollars have flowed to the city, the money will run out in financial year 2025 – the reason the Adams administration said it sliced the school budget by more than US$200 million (S$280 million) this year.
Principals said the cuts are forcing them to slash teaching positions and enrichment programmes they need to help students recover during a school year that was supposed to finally be normal after years of pandemic disruption.
Many families worried about what the cuts might mean for their children. Some feared that after-school programmes and tutoring could be rolled back, while others were unsure how classrooms would be affected after hundreds of teaching positions were cut from schools before the academic year.
“By cutting funding for public schools, it’s not even a tough climb, there are no stairs,” she said.
The administration said it proposed the cuts because of declining enrolment. About 120,000 families have left the school system over the past five years. The decline in students at traditional district schools has stood in contrast to the enrolment increases of about 7 per cent in the last two school years at the city’s charter schools, about 60 per cent of which began their first day of classes last month.
The mayor last week maintained that the system “must be fiscally smart”.
“This is a historic moment – that the council is fighting against a budget that they approved,” he said. “We are going to make sure every child in every school receives the resources he or she needs.”
“In this economy, in this recession, in this pandemic, they’re already starting at a disadvantage,” said Ms Kim Naci, whose 14-year-old daughter Ava Ayşe Young began her freshman year at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn this week.
The cuts come as the school system is welcoming hundreds of migrant families. The school’s chancellor, Mr David Banks, announced last month an initiative to support migrant children that will include school enrolment assistance as well as language and social and emotional support.
“They are not in this alone,” he told reporters last month. “The resources will be there.” NYTIMES