The nation’s largest public school system will take another step toward a full reopening later this month by welcoming middle school students back into classrooms that have been shuttered since November.
The about 62,000 New York City middle school students who opted for in-person learning last year will be able to return to classrooms for at least part of the week starting Feb. 25. The city still does not have a plan to reopen its high schools.
Reopening schools has become one of the most fraught political issues in cities across the country, and New York City has been no exception. Mayor Bill de Blasio battled with the teachers’ union for months before eventually settling on a reopening plan that included stringent safety measures. In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a tentative agreement with the teachers’ union on reopening Sunday evening, following weeks of intensive debate.
The return of middle school students means that by the end of February, about 250,000 of New York City’s roughly a million public school students will be back in school buildings. Richard A. Carranza, the city’s schools chancellor, said Monday that about half of the 471 middle schools reopening will be able to accommodate most children five days a week, and that at least some of the other schools should be able to move toward that goal in the coming months.
Despite many schools opening for full-time in-person learning, many elementary and middle school students will still be rotating in and out of classrooms and online classes every few days to allow for social distancing.
“Our schools have been remarkably safe, in fact the safest places in New York City,” Mr. de Blasio said during a news conference on Monday. “That’s why we know its time to bring back our middle-grade kids now.”
He added, “I know our children are ready, our parents are ready.”
Still, the vast majority of city students — roughly 70 percent — have opted out of in-person classes altogether, and decided to learn from home through the rest of the school year. A disproportionate number of white students — who represent a minority of the school population — have returned to classrooms, while many Black, Latino and Asian-American families have chosen remote learning.
Many Black families in particular have said they are distrustful of school districts, and do not believe that their children will be safe in classrooms.
When Mr. de Blasio opened schools for all grade levels in October, New York’s became the first major school system in the country to reopen, if only partially. But only six weeks later, the mayor closed the schools as virus cases surged. Mr. de Blasio then reopened classrooms for elementary school students and children with advanced disabilities in December.
The city is not changing the safety measures it negotiated with the teachers’ union last year. Those measures include random weekly testing of students and staff in schools and requiring school buildings to close temporarily if at least two unrelated positive cases are detected.
The school closing protocol, which is supported by the teachers’ union, has forced many elementary schools to close temporarily, frustrating parents. As of Sunday evening, 92 of roughly 1,000 open school buildings were closed for at least 10 days, another 85 buildings were closed for at least 24 hours, and 585 classrooms were temporarily shuttered.
Mr. de Blasio said last week that the city would “re-evaluate” that rule, since the closures have become so disruptive for families, but the United Federation of Teachers quickly responded that the city should keep the protocol in place.
The union’s president, Michael Mulgrew, said in an email to members on Monday that it backed the reopening of middle schools because of the mayor’s promises on safety.
“As school buildings that have not been used in months are reopened, our commitment to the safety standards that have kept us safe must not waver,” Mr. Mulgrew wrote.
The city conducts about 120,000 tests in schools daily, officials said on Monday.
Educators in New York are already eligible for the coronavirus vaccine, but teachers returning to classrooms will have direct access to the shots during the upcoming midwinter break, which will run between Feb. 12 and 21. The union has created a vaccination program to help its members get vaccinated, and Mr. Mulgrew said the city would allocate “thousands” of doses for teachers in the coming weeks.
Mr. de Blasio is opening middle schools at a precarious time for New York, a former global epicenter of the virus. The mayor initially shut the school system when the average test positivity reached 3 percent; it is now hovering around 8 percent. The city is also poised to reopen indoor dining at reduced capacity on Friday, which some fear could drive cases up.
There is also significant concern that new, more contagious variants of the virus could increase the positivity rate over the coming weeks.
The average positivity rate in schools was 0.54 percent as of last week. That number is low in part because students and staffers are being tested randomly in order to catch asymptomatic cases.
Multiple studies have shown that schools can be relatively safe as long as strict safety protocols, such as required mask-wearing, are followed.
Asked on Monday whether the city was planning to reopen high schools this spring, Mr. de Blasio said his team would focus on that problem next.
“I want to get our high school kids back during the course of the current school year,” he said. “There’s more work needed. High schools are a complex situation.”
Though the parents of most middle school students have already opted to keep their children in remote instruction for now, some greeted Monday’s news with relief.
Assietou Sow, who lives on the Upper West Side, said she and her children rejoiced when they heard the announcement. Ms. Sow said the past few months of full-remote learning have been particularly stressful.
“They’re ready to go back,” she said.
Ms. Sow said her children have longed to see their friends since their middle school closed and view the reopening as a “reunion.”
Juliana Kim contributed reporting.