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NYC Public Schools, Mostly Remote During The Pandemic, Return To In-Class Learning

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Today's the first day back at school for about 1 million New York City kids. The nation's largest district has been mostly remote during the pandemic, but now they're returning to the classroom. NPR's Rosemary Misdary has been speaking to teachers, parents and public health experts, and they've been bracing themselves at a time when infection rates continue to rise among children.

ROSEMARY MISDARY, BYLINE: American history usually begins with the Enlightenment for Gregory Monte's Brooklyn high school students. But this year...

GREGORY MONTE: I've chosen an activity that our school developed about where students' names originate. What is the ethnic and cultural significance of it? And then get those students to talk about what's on their mind and what makes them comfortable or uncomfortable when returning to school.

MISDARY: He inspected summer classes for COVID safety. It was the dry run for the upcoming school year, and he tells parents who fear the worst...

MONTE: To have faith - having reviewed a lot of high schools in Brooklyn during the summer, visiting summer school sites and seeing the efforts that our school system is already making to ensure a safe, sanitary learning environment, I'd say we're off to a great start.

MISDARY: The New York City Department of Education's reopening plan includes required vaccinations for staff, 3 feet of distance and a strict mask mandate. Pediatrician and public health expert Dr. Ayman El-Mohandes calls it robust and comprehensive, but says kids are kids.

AYMAN EL-MOHANDES: Plans are plans, but implementation is where the rubber hits the road. It's what happens in the school environment, how it is supervised, how the children are monitored. Not being sure that the children actually will be wearing masks correctly is where potential for spread occurs.

JAMES LOPEZ: We're going to have the little bottle of hand sanitizers for each one, a pack of wipes, (laughter), a extra mask, maybe two masks with them just in case.

MISDARY: This is what James Lopez is packing into school bags for each of his sons - a kindergartner, a fourth-grader and a high school sophomore in Staten Island.

LOPEZ: We're winging it right now, so might as well prepare for the worst.

MISDARY: He wants his kids back in school. But after the whole family was sick with COVID last winter, he's worried.

LOPEZ: Oh, man. I hate to be negative, but I'm bracing to have them come back home again. Like, I'm expecting them to have school maybe the first couple weeks of September, and then I'm expecting a dreaded call of, hey, we got a couple of cases here. School's closed for the next week. And to be honest, the minute they tell me, hey, you have an option of sending them remote or sending them to school, I might keep them home again. You know, they come first.

MISDARY: Dr. El-Mohandes says fears that infections will rise among children are well-founded.

EL-MOHANDES: There's no question that that is a very realistic possibility. And we have to follow that very, very carefully, especially amongst the age cohort where vaccines are, in fact, not licensed.

MISDARY: Which makes the absence of a remote learning option this year a big concern for parents like James Lopez.

LOPEZ: It's almost like a smack in the face of a parent where it's like, we're smart enough. We watch the news. We see the data. We see the trends. We know something's happening. You not having a backup plan for it - it's kind of ludicrous.

MISDARY: Despite recent weeks of the sharpest rises in child cases coinciding with school openings across the country, educators and medical experts are adamant that the healthiest place for children to learn is in the classroom together with their teachers.

Rosemary Misdary, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVV'S "VOYAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.