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It's Back-To-School Season In NYC. Here's How 3 Moms Are Handling It

For the first time since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, all of New York City's public school students are expected to return to classes in person today.
Stephanie Keith
Bloomberg via Getty Images
For the first time since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, all of New York City's public school students are expected to return to classes in person today.

This week marked the first day of school in New York City, the largest school district in the country. Mayor Bill de Blasio held a news conference last week showing off air purifiers, stacks of child-sized surgical masks and electrostatic sprayers. The message? "I say to all parents ... the best place for your kid is in school."

Natalya Murakhver agrees. She's a mother of a 7-year-old going into the second grade and an 11-year-old starting middle school on Manhattan's Upper West Side. She led a group of parents who sued the district last spring to open up schools full time. "I think the mayor is doing a great job and really trying to emphasize the importance and safety of in-person instruction," she says, "which we've known for a very, very long time."

Farah Despeignes, who has two sons in middle school, disagrees: "Parents all over the city feel that the remote option is best for them." She is president of the Bronx Parent Leaders Advocacy Group, and she says parents from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan are organizing protests, discussing school boycotts and even lawsuits because they want to keep their children remote.

She says these parents have lost faith in the city's department of education, or DOE. "They do not trust the DOE. They do not trust that they will do what it says it is going to do, because they know from decades of experience that the DOE has never done right by them and their kids."

Earlier in the summer, schools across the country were envisioning a return to near-normal operations. Cases of COVID-19 were down, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had relaxed distancing requirements for schools, and 12-year-olds were getting vaccines. There was even talk of vaccinated teachers and students removing masks.

A surge in remote learning options

Then came the highly infectious delta strain, combined with restrictions easing around the country. Cases surged among unvaccinated people, including children.

Now, for the third school year in a row, schools are changing their plans on short notice — and they're inevitably leaving some parents unhappy. Polls suggest the vast majority of parents nationwide want their children back in person. Parents of color are more likely to be hesitant.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education has been tracking the plans of 100 of the largest and most prominent school districts across the country, which together educate around 1 in 5 students nationwide. They found the following shifts in July and August:

  • A big increase in mask mandates — 75 of those 100 districts now require them for all.
  • Vaccine mandates are on the rise as well. Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland and Seattle now require all school staff to get vaccinated without a testing alternative. And Los Angeles and Culver City, Calif., are requiring all students over 12 to be vaccinated. 
  • The number of districts offering remote learning doubled in a matter of weeks. Now, 92 of the 100 districts have some such plan; 56 of the districts offer remote learning to anyone who wants it.
  • As it was last year, New York City has become an embattled outlier among big-city school districts for its emphasis on in-person school. Remote learning will be available only to a relatively few students deemed "medically fragile" because of serious conditions, like cystic fibrosis or leukemia. "Our Medically Necessary Instruction program will provide immunocompromised students with a high-quality education and support from caring adults," Sarah Casasnovas of the Department of Education told NPR.

    Selena Carrión, who lives in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx, has a daughter, Aurora, going into kindergarten. Aurora had a liver transplant when she was around a year old. Carrión has been trying to get her qualified as medically fragile for home instruction, but the process, she says, has been opaque. That's true even though Carrión herself used to teach at her daughter's school.

    While Carrión wishes her daughter could be with other students in person, she doesn't trust that the school building will be safe for her. They have portable classrooms and overcrowding. The cafeteria is in the basement, which limits opportunities for ventilation while children are eating. And, "even this past year with only some people in person, we constantly were getting shut down for outbreaks and staff had to constantly quarantine throughout the entire school year."

    As this third disrupted school year gets under way, parents are worried, confused, tired and fed up. And both sides seem farther apart than ever in their views.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

    Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.