Several weeks before Mayor Bill de Blasio shut New York City’s school system, the nation’s largest, amid a surge in coronavirus cases, he handed parents a daunting deadline: They had only a few weeks to decide if their children would return to classrooms this school year, and likely until at least next fall.
This week, New Yorkers returned their verdict: Only about 35,000 children who had been learning remotely at the start of the school year asked to switch into some in-person learning whenever city schools reopen.
The number of families choosing to return to classrooms represents both a major disappointment and surprise for the mayor, who has said he has a mandate from parents to reopen schools. Parents were asked to make the wrenching decision about how their children would learn for the rest of the school year while the threat of systemwide closure loomed. All city schools closed for in-person learning indefinitely on Thursday, though the mayor has vowed to reopen them as soon as possible.
When schools do reopen, only about 335,000 students — nearly a third of the city’s roughly 1.1 million public schoolchildren — could learn in the school buildings that Mr. de Blasio spent months fighting to reopen.
But that number could actually be lower when classrooms reopen. Students can switch from in-person to online learning at any time this school year, but the mayor has said they can no longer sign up for classroom instruction.
The latest numbers came as many parents, educators and elected officials were mired in an intense debate about whether the city’s schools should had been closed at all. Yet the figures demonstrate that the conflict over in-person instruction is relevant for a minority of city families.
That highlights a harsh reality for Mr. de Blasio’s administration, which has put schools at the center of the push to revive New York City and its economy after it became a global epicenter of the virus in the spring.
And the fact that just under half of Black and Latino families have chosen to keep their children learning at home undermines the mayor’s argument that public school parents, who are overwhelmingly low-income parents of color, demanded open classrooms.
The mayor had expected most children to return to school buildings because of the widely acknowledged inferiority of remote learning compared with in-person classes, and the enormous child care challenge that remote learning has created for working families.
“I think if you went from March 2020 theoretically all the way to September 2021 and a kid never got into a classroom with an educator and caring adults that can help them, it would’ve been a massive mistake,” Mr. de Blasio said in a radio interview on Friday morning, before the new numbers were released.
Now the mayor is presiding over a school system in which white children, who make up just 15 percent of the public school population, have had a disproportionate presence in classrooms during the pandemic. The most recent survey of parents indicated that white families were choosing remote learning at the lowest rates of any racial group.
New York stands apart from the rest of the country for the enormous size of its public school system: The number of children set to return to classrooms is roughly equivalent to the total enrollment of Miami’s public school district, the nation’s fourth-largest.
Still, the numbers fell far short of the mayor’s predictions.
In July, Mr. de Blasio said he expected only about a quarter of parents to keep their children learning at home when schools reopened. It was clear by October that the city would fall significantly short of that goal, but the mayor still called the preliminary enrollment number “a work in progress” when he announced it.
Now that figure appears to be more final.
After originally promising that children learning remotely would be able to choose in-person classes once a quarter, the mayor said last month that parents would have only one opportunity to opt back in for the rest of the school year.
He justified the change by explaining that the city needed a better sense of who was actually showing up to classrooms. Since the number was so much lower than anticipated, principals could not properly plan school schedules. It is likely that when schools do reopen, at least some schools will be able to accommodate more students on more days because of the relatively low enrollment.
The results raised urgent questions about why the city had spent so many months rushing to prepare school buildings while spending relatively little time focusing on improving remote learning. Almost all children will spend much of their time learning remotely, and about 700,000 students will spend their entire week taking online classes.
Those numbers may send a concerning signal to other large districts across the country about parents’ willingness to send their children back into classrooms.
Despite the fact that schools have reported very few virus cases, and that everyone from the president of the teachers’ union to the city’s top public health experts agree that schools are generally safe, most families simply do not want to return while the pandemic is still raging.
At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Black, Latino and Asian-American children — including many students with disabilities and children living in homeless shelters or in public housing — will learn from home full time.
About 60,000 children who have requested devices from the city fore remote learning have not received them, and others are still struggling to connect to Wi-Fi.
There is no single reason so many families have not sent their children back into schools, and it would be a vast oversimplification to say that any one racial or ethnic group has a consensus view on in-person learning.
And there are still many thousands of children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who are back in classrooms. But the demographic differences between those who have chosen to return to classrooms and those who have not are striking — and so far, the mayor has resisted directly addressing those disparities.
Nonwhite families in New York have experienced significantly worse health outcomes from the virus than their white peers, and many city students live in multigenerational households where it would be particularly dangerous to bring the virus home.
The mayor’s halting approach to reopening schools also did not help. The multiple delays to in-person classes prompted some parents to wonder if the city was truly ready, or if it was safe.
For some families, the consistency of full-time remote learning was preferable to just a few days in the classroom a week, and to the ever-looming threat of a shut down. Other parents had said they would not consider sending their children back until there was a vaccine, even if the city had implemented its reopening plan flawlessly.
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Most families agree that remote learning is a poor substitute for in-person classes, but some have said that despite the limitations of online instruction, the risk of illness is just too great.
Even some parents who initially sent their children back into classrooms this fall have since decided to keep them home.
Krystal Jordan, who lives with her son in a homeless shelter in Queens, decided to switch to all-remote instruction after her son said school felt overly restrictive, like a “prison.” But remote learning has not been a success either, she said.
“It’s overwhelming,” Ms. Jordan said. “He logs on to school and the teacher tries to make it like a real class the best she can, but sometimes the device doesn’t work and the WiFi’s slow.”
She did not know whether her son’s schedule would change with in-person classes shut down. “There’s so much uneasiness in general,” Ms. Jordan said, “that it’s hard to focus on the school work.”
Many parents said their children had been overjoyed to be back in the classroom, and some parents of students with disabilities said that in-person instruction had been nothing short of transformational for their children.
But parents who chose hybrid learning also said the limitations of part-time instruction were discouraging.
An agreement this summer between the city and the teachers’ union has created a significant staffing shortage that is not yet entirely resolved. Many large high schools had asked every student who could to learn from home in order for those schools to offer all their elective courses, which drove down enrollment figures considerably.
Still, many parents who chose hybrid instruction said their children’s happiness about being back in school buildings had outweighed the problems with part-time instruction.
Many of them are devastated that schools are now closed, including many parents of children with disabilities.
Kristin Giantris, a single working mother who lives in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, said she was dreading the return to full-time remote instruction.
The services her son needs, Ms. Giantris said, “don’t translate on the computer.”
“My child is losing his self esteem, his people’s skills,” she added. “He doesn’t feel like he’s smart enough. I am physically watching him fade in terms of personality.”
Juliana Kim and Emmett Lindner contributed reporting.