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In New York City, excitement mixes with uncertainty as more schools open

Young students lined up outside a public elementary school in Brooklyn on Tuesday (Sept. 29) morning, sporting an array of colorful masks as they waited with their parents to re-enter the classroom for the first time in six months.

It was a mix of excitement and worry for many families as they approached the school staff who would take children’s temperatures and check their names on a list before letting them into the building, with no parents allowed inside.

“It’s stressful but we’re excited for sure. He’s very excited to be back in school,” said Justin Perkins, 37, holding the hand of his son, Xander, a first-grader at P.S. 130 in the Windsor Terrace-Kensington area of Brooklyn. “We understand wearing masks and social distancing is very important but we’d like to get back to normal.”

Perkins, who works as a bartender, said ultimately his son would decide for himself whether he wanted to keep coming back for in-person learning. “We’re going to leave it up to him to see if he doesn’t like it.”

The students are among hundreds of thousands in New York City who have chosen in-person learning and will head back to their classrooms this week after a months-long hiatus spurred by COVID-19.

Most other major school districts in the United States have scrapped plans for now to resume in-person education. In Los Angeles, the second largest U.S. school district, students are staying home and using laptops to connect with their classes, as students are also doing in Chicago.

In New York, elementary students began in-person instruction on Tuesday as part of the city’s blended learning plan, which calls for students to spend some of the week in schools and the remainder learning at home online.

Last week, pre-kindergarten children and students with special learning needs resumed in-person learning. After elementary schools, it will be middle and high school students’ turn to return to the classroom on Thursday (October 1).

Efforts to bring students back to the classroom did not go off without a hitch in New York, the country’s largest public school district serving more than 1 million students.

Mayor Bill de Blasio delayed in-person learning at public schools twice due to staffing shortages and other difficulties arising from the pandemic.

Recently, a rise in the rate of positive coronavirus tests in some Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods has prompted concerns that schools might have to shut again. Authorities have said the system would close if the seven-day rolling average in the city crosses the 3% threshold.

Shortly after parents dropped off their children at schools across the city, de Blasio said the daily COVID-19 positive test rate was over 3% percent for the “first time in months.”

However, the seven-day rolling average stood at 1.38%, low enough for schools to go ahead with reopening plans, the mayor said.

“We are keeping a very close eye on our indicators and won’t hesitate to take quick action where that’s necessary,” schools chancellor Richard Carranza told a news conference.

New York City’s classrooms look very different. Face coverings, desks placed six feet apart, lunch in the classroom and outdoor classes for some are among the novelties awaiting students and staff. Ventilation systems have been revamped too.

Despite the challenges and uncertainty, Bill Sweeney and his daughter Eleanor were happy to be back.

“It’s very exciting, it finally came,” said Sweeney as he walked his daughter up to the entry point for second-graders. “It’s been a long time coming but, you know, we’ll see if it continues.”

(Production: Maria Caspani, Hussein Al Waaile, Roselle Chen)

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