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NYC middle and high schools reopen, but teacher shortages persist

NEW YORK — New York City’s middle and high schools opened their doors on Thursday, completing the reopening of 1,600 schools in the first big U.S. city to bring students back during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the teachers’ union warned that schools still don’t have the teachers they need to effectively start classes under a complicated hybrid education model, and Mayor Bill de Blasio refused to say how many educators the city has hired to address the shortage.

About half a million students returned to school this week, while nearly as many opted to stay home and take all online classes. The city is warily watching Covid-19 clusters to determine whether schools can stay open for the long term. They will shut down if the city’s positive test rate hits 3 percent on average over 7 days.

One school — the John F. Kennedy Jr. school in Queens, which serves students with disabilities — has been ordered to shut down for two weeks because at least two coronavirus cases were found in separate classrooms. That's in addition to several yeshivas forced to shut down in recent weeks over infection concerns.

Despite the ongoing challenges, de Blasio took a victory lap on Thursday.

“We did something that other cities around this country could only dream of, because we have fought back this pandemic so well for so long,” he said at a press briefing. “This is a key moment in our rebirth. And a lot of people said it couldn’t be done. And it was tough, but we did it.”

The city’s school reopening happened in three phases, with the return of high school and middle school students on Thursday following elementary schools on Tuesday and pre-kindergarten last week. That came after the mayor twice delayed what was supposed to be the first day of school, first over safety concerns that led teachers to threaten a strike and then over a staffing shortage.

To keep classes small and allow social distancing, students who opt for in-person education are only attending school one to three days a week, and learning remotely on other days. And the city has agreed to use separate teachers for in person and remote classes, meaning it needs many more teachers than during a normal year.

Because of the shortage, several of the city’s largest and most prominent high schools have opted to move all of their classes online — with even students who are physically in classrooms turning their attention to iPads or laptops for instruction.

“At this point, we’re assuming we need a couple of thousand teachers … especially at the high school level,” United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew told reporters outside the University Neighborhood High School in Manhattan early Thursday morning. “We’re seeing some high schools that have very limited programs.”

The city promised to hire 4,500 new teachers, but acknowledged that would not be enough to run high schools. On Thursday, de Blasio would not say how many teachers have been hired so far or how many more would be needed.

“We’re now going to be making those adjustments over the next few weeks. We’ll get to a final, locked-down roster for every school and then we’ll be able to tell you what we had to add,” he said.

De Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza also could not say how many schools were providing all their classes online, even for students who are physically in school. But they said the goal would be to scrap that model as more teachers are hired.

“This is not what we want. This is not going to be the standard,” Carranza said.

Starting next week, students will be required to get tested for the coronavirus at their schools. A random sampling of 10 to 20 percent of the student body and staff are supposed to be tested each month.

The city says that students whose parents don’t sign a consent form for testing may be prohibited from attending in person.

The teacher’s union is also pushing the city to shut down the public schools in ten Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods where infections are rising. But de Blasio has balked, saying there is no indication the virus has infiltrated the local schools.

“There appears to be a real separation between what’s happening in the neighborhoods, versus what’s happening in the public schools,” he said.

Youssef Elle, a student at the Newcomers High School in Long Island City — a school focused on new immigrants and English language learners — said he’s happy to be back in school as remote learning was tough.

But he said the new protocols in place due to the pandemic made for an unusual experience.

“It’s weird to wear a mask all day in my classes,” Elle said.

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