Last year, 5 and 80 percent of the public school’s teachers learned and taught remotely.
Danielle Keane, principal of Public School 5 in the South Bronx, spent months preparing for the first day of school on Monday morning.
Everything was in place: the police department’s pipe and drum band buried under an orange and black balloon arch—the school’s colors—and circled the concrete school grounds, playing a Bruno Mars song. The teachers, wearing matching black T-shirts that read, “Let the good times come,” danced along. Inside, the school building was lit, with desks three feet apart and anyone in need of a mask.
“Now, we only need the kids,” said Ms. Keane.
He wasn’t sure how many would actually show up.
The past 18 months have been exceptionally difficult for the school, which serves low-income black and Latino elementary and middle school students in a neighborhood that has been ravaged by the coronavirus.
Last year, of the school’s nearly 600 elementary and middle school students, the vast majority – about 80 percent – opted to learn remotely. Nearly half of school teachers were given medical exemptions to work from home. The cave building felt empty and a little hazy, with just over 120 students and a few dozen teachers and staff congregating around the hallway.
For the past few months, Ms. Keane has been on a mission to bring all her students back to the building and make their families feel comfortable returning after all these months. Her work is being tested this week, as New York’s school system, the nation’s largest, fully reopens for the first time since March 2020 – with no distance learning option.
For the entire summer, she’s been telling parents and her staff: “Life’s going to go on, let’s keep it going.”
On Monday, about 90 percent of the students on Ms Keane’s register returned to classes, which is higher than the citywide average of 82 percent.
The school felt as vibrant as Ms Keane had hoped. “What a beautiful day,” she said.
A version of Ms. Keane’s effort is underway in all 1,800 schools in the city this week. New York City teachers are facing families worried about returning to classrooms amid the spread of the delta variant, with all elementary students and many older children still not receiving vaccinations.
Some parents across the city refuse to home-school their children instead, enroll them in charters with online learning options, or simply keep the kids enrolled in public schools at home, unless They may not feel more comfortable returning to classes.
Ms Keane believed her students, many of whom are struggling with distance learning, needed to get back to classes this fall. But she knew she just couldn’t expect her families to suddenly feel comfortable sending their children back.
So, Ms. Keane made a plan: She would do everything possible to make the school a place that people wanted to be. In addition to preparing for the start of the year, Ms. Keane became a de facto event planner for her school, and dreamed of ways she could connect more families. As with much of the city’s educational landscape, the success of the school year rests heavily on the shoulders of a headmaster.
He faced crises big and small. Just an hour before the back-to-school carnival began in mid-August, Ms. Keane learned that two dozen or more goldfish were expected to be given away as prizes later that day.
He calmly arranged for the dead fish to be pulled out of the fish tank with a net, and crossed his fingers that the rest of the sweltering afternoon would survive.
The carnival was a climax in Ms. Keane’s back-to-school push, which had begun before the last school year officially ended. In June, the PS 5 skipped its planned Zoom graduation and held six in-person events for graduating middle school students, with caps, gowns, and red carpets rolling out on the school playground. In July, the school hosted over 300 children from across the city for summer school classes, including many PS5 students.
Ms Keane started a twice-weekly “homecoming” session to allow families who had stayed home last year to return to the building and learn about safety measures. There were also literacy classes for parents learning English, as well as comedy nights for families.
But it wasn’t until the PS5 hosted an outdoor movie night in the park adjacent to the school that Ms. Keane realized her plan was working. Well over 200 people showed one of the films, the best voting the school had seen for any of its programs so far. Ms. Keane went home that night, wiping tears of joy and relief from her eyes.
But as news of Delta spreading across the country raised alarm about returning to classes, Ms Keane saw Carnival as her best bet to gauge families’ sentiments. As soon as she stepped into the park, she was immediately reassured.
Parents and children whom he had not seen for several months lined up to hug him. Masked children with their friends swung among the bouncy slides despite the scorching humidity. Hip-hop music was playing from the speakers, and teachers and volunteers gave out popcorn. Doctors at one hospital distributed masks and gloves, and one briefly took up the microphone to encourage everyone in the crowd to get vaccinated.
At noon several hundred people came to the park.
Lynette Mestre, who has two children and five nieces and nephews who participate in the PS 5, spent the afternoon hugging teachers and friends she hadn’t seen in months.
Ms Mestre, who works for the York City Housing Authority, felt her children would be safest at home last year, especially since she was in and out of public housing complexes every day. But his daughter struggled to learn to read during distance education. Ms Mestre hired a tutor, but said her daughter started making real progress only when she enrolled in summer school courses at PS5.
Ms. Mestre said Ms. Keane’s enthusiasm boosted her confidence about returning to school. And she appreciated how the principal checked in on her children, even when they were not physically in the building. “You have the best principal doing her job,” said Ms. Mestre. “I can not complain.”
“It is time,” said Ms. Mestre, for her children to return to school. “Oh, they’re ready. It’s going to be good.”
PS5 parent Henry Gomez started working at the school during the pandemic, filling in a crisis as so many teachers were working from home. After so many months of distance learning, he has become deeply concerned about the mental health of the children. The carnival and all other summer events, Mr. Gomez said, were a way to signal a new beginning.
“It’s a village coming together to tell everyone that they can feel comfortable, to tell everyone, ‘We’re good, we’re in a different place,'” he said.
Ms. Keane tried to carry that feeling of happiness through the first day of school.
On the Friday before the school year started, her teacher was zipping notebooks and pens into new backpacks embroidered with “Homecoming 2021.” Ms. Keane handed out chalk and spray paint, and her staff drew the message on the sidewalk in preparation for the first day: “We’re so glad to see you!” and “rocks of the second grade.”
Lawn marks are visible on the grass outside the school. Everyone was happy with the rising sun and flowers and happy messages. But one stood apart, a sober reminder of how much time New York students have lost: the words “two years later” were written in blue bubble letters.
Getting the kids back into the building after a year and a half required every bit of creativity and determination that Ms. Keane and her staff could find.
But it is only the first step towards achieving something like a normal school year.
School teachers don’t know much about what the hundreds of kids who have been away last year have been doing. The academic and mental health challenges that manifest themselves in the days and weeks ahead could be enormous.
And school staff members have had to deal with their own traumas and fears. Last week, Ms. Keane gathered all her teachers in the building for the first time in a year and a half. He kept a moment of silence for everything he had done. Last year, staff members and teachers who came to work every day got a standing ovation.
Isabel Calderon was one of those teachers. In some days, her preschool class for 3-year-olds had just four students.
“It’s not a life, it’s not a school life,” she said. “You need people, you need that energy, and we didn’t have that.”
But PS 5 teachers know that school might not feel like it did in a long time. Positive cases and classroom quarantine are inevitable. No one can predict how disastrous the next few months will be.
“I just want everyone to be happy again,” said kindergarten teacher Simone Shenlogian. “I think we may be creating a new normal together.”