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Schools in a Jumble: The Partial Return to School in New York City

Before Thanksgiving, New York City closed its public schools because of rising coronavirus cases. Then, in a sudden reversal, it reopened elementary schools on Monday.

Families have struggled to cope with the abrupt changes in policy.

“All this back and forth has not been good for them."

one parent, Laura Espinoza, said about her 6-year-old twins, who attend school in Brooklyn.

For months, Mayor Bill de Blasio has been adamant about opening schools, saying that public school parents, who are overwhelmingly low-income people of color, had demanded that classrooms be reopened. But this week, 12,000 more white students returned to buildings than Black students, undermining his argument.

“It’s the perfect storm of marginalization. That’s why there is the need to demand stronger instruction remotely.”

Jamila Newman of TNTP, a nonprofit that provides consulting services for school districts, told my colleague Eliza Shapiro, who covers education.

Educators, parents and advocates are worried because remote learning has numerous limitations. For instance, many children, including some in homeless shelters, still lack access to devices and reliable Wi-Fi.

“The city treats remote like an afterthought."

said Erika Kendall, whose children are learning from home.

I recently spoke with Ms. Shapiro about the city’s decisions. Here is a lightly edited version of our conversation:

Q: Why did Mr. de Blasio reverse his vow to keep schools closed when the city hit a seven-day average positivity rate of 3 percent?

A: The mayor faced a lot of blowback for his decision to close schools at 3 percent, which some felt to be arbitrary. One reason he can reopen schools now is that there will be significantly increased testing in schools — random weekly testing, instead of monthly — and there are relatively few kids back in school buildings anyway.

Most students of color are learning from home, so why hasn’t the city done more to bolster online learning?

We are clearly seeing trust issues between Black and Asian-American families and the city over school reopening.

The mayor has been clear that his administration has focused most of its resources on reopening school buildings rather than on improving online learning because he — and many experts — believe that remote learning is inherently inferior.

Is another systemwide closure possible?

Schools could close again if the state’s average positivity number reaches 9 percent, but it’s not entirely clear. (The state requires schools to close across an entire region if the seven-day test positivity rate in that region reaches 9 percent.)

Will schools return to normal when a vaccine is available?

I don’t think public schools will immediately go back to normal once a vaccine is available. It would have to be widely distributed, and we would have to reach herd immunity, which could take many months.

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