Hoards of masked public school children returned to classrooms on Monday, Sept. 13, for the first day of school 18 months after Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered a system-wide shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, triggering a shift to online learning.
The first day of classes started off rocky when the New York City Department of Education’s health screening website crashed. Under the city’s school health and safety guidelines, all students and school staff must fill out a COVID-19 health screen before being allowed into a school building.
But as children and families made their way to school buildings, some reported being unable to fill out the document online sending teachers and school aids scrambling to pass out paper health screens.
The DOE Health Screening form, which every student and staff in the city needs to complete to enter school buildings is currently down. My school of about 2,000 students and staff are scrambling to print paper copies which everyone would have to fill out. Great start to year 14!
— KFrancisKearns🌹 (@KFrancisKearns) September 13, 2021
Schools Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter attributed the health screening hiccup to the department’s website becoming overloaded as roughly one million students tried to log on around the same time.
“First day of school and a million kids. That’ll overload you,” joked Mayor de Blasio with Porter outside of P.S. 25 in the Bronx Monday morning, the first stop in a marathon of school visits the chancellor has planned for the first week of classes.
Eventually, the health screening site went back online. “Our apologies for the short period it was down this morning,” the DOE tweeted at 8:45 a.m. “If you are having issues accessing the online tool, please use a paper form or inform school staff verbally.”
Although both officials boasted a full return of over one million public school students, the exact number of children attending public school classes in person will be unclear until the DOE release enrollment numbers later this fall. Last year, enrollment in public schools dropped by about 4%, or 43,000 students, according to DOE enrollment data released in January of this year. Department officials faulted the city’s declining birthrate as well as the pandemic for the decline.
Some have worried the years-long trend of declining public school enrollment will continue into this school year because of de Blasio’s refusal to offer students a remote option. After suggesting in the spring the City would offer a remote option this fall, de Blasio surprised school communities by announcing all students would be required to return to school in person with only the medically fragile allowed to take their courses online.
The lack of a remote option has prompted some parents to keep their children home out of fear the City will fail to make good on its promise to keep all students and staff safe from COVID-19’s Delta variant this year.
— Tom Sheppard (@tomcsheppard) September 13, 2021
At P.S. 121 Throop in the Bronx, elementary school-aged kids stood three feet apart and cheered Chancellor Porter, First Lady Chirlane McCray and Federal Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona before the trio toured the school’s classrooms and cafeteria.
Since de Blasio announced all students would be returning to school buildings, parents, teachers and school staff have pressed for clarity on how officials plan to abide by health and safety guidelines particularly social distancing recommendations.
Under CDC guidance, school staff should try to maintain at least three feet of social distance between children and adults whenever possible but should not prevent a full reopening even if social distance can not be maintained.
In August, the DOE released a short booklet outlining school health and safety protocol which very closely follows recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Under the guidance, all adults and children are required to wear masks and 10% of unvaccinated students and staffers will be tested every two weeks. If a positive COVID-19 case is detected, students will be required to quarantine for 10 days.
Some students reported the first day back was not as academically put together as they would have imagined and that students felt shy around one another. Sebastian Trivino, 16, a junior at Middle College High School, a public high school located on the campus of LaGuardia Community College, told amNewYork Metro he spent the day doing ice breaker activities.