Doubts persist at start of NYC's hybrid school year

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FILE- In this Sept. 2, 2020 file photo, parents bring their children to participate in an outdoor learning demonstration to display methods schools can use to continue on-site education during the coronavirus pandemic, at P.S. 15 in the Red Hook neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York. New York City's already delayed school year is scheduled to start remotely Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 in a soft opening that will serve as a prologue to the return of students to physical classrooms on the following week. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

NEW YORK – New York City's already- delayed school year started remotely Wednesday in a soft opening that will serve as a prologue to the return of students to actual classrooms next week.

Even as more than a million kids remotely return to class, it's an open question whether the city can pull off the hybrid learning system Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in July.

Unions representing teachers and principals in the nation's largest public school district say schools still don't have the teachers or the coronavirus safety measures that are needed, but de Blasio, a Democrat, insisted that the school year would start as planned with three days of online orientation this week.

“We’ve said repeatedly it will not be a perfect start,” de Blasio said Wednesday. “We’ll be making a lot of adjustments in the weeks after we begin to continue to improve things. But the important reality here is to say we’re going to be providing the best education possible in person, the best education possible remotely, we’re going to keep making improvements as we go along, we’re going to keep adjusting and figuring out what we need in terms of staffing.”

Students began returning to physical classrooms Wednesday for the first time since March, when COVID-19 forced the closure of schoolhouses in New York and much of the rest of the nation.

The reopening comes as an average of about 240 people a day are still being diagnosed with the coronavirus in New York City, one of only a few large U.S. cities attempting to start the school year with students in real classrooms.

Under de Blasio's plan, the majority of students will be in their schools between one and three days a week and home learning on screens the rest of the time. About 42% of families have requested online-only instruction.

All students were supposed to connect with teachers and classmates online in a three-day orientation starting Wednesday that will focus on students' social and emotional well-being and lay out some of the practicalities of how this unprecedented school year will work.

Catarina Garcia said the first day of kindergarten for her son, Jayden Rosario, consisted of an hourlong video conference with his teachers at Public School 33 in Manhattan.

“Overall, they did a good job,” Garcia said. “It was a lot of reading, talking and singing. Similar to school, just different because they’re not there.”

Garcia said she chose remote-only instruction rather than sending Jayden into the classroom part time because she fears a resurgence of the virus.

“I’m not going to take the risk of everything popping up,” she said. “My son’s not going to be a test dummy."

Sandrine Plympton, whose son Lucas will start in person school at nearby Public School 11 next week, said Wednesday's video orientation consisted of the teacher meeting the kids and going over how the school year will work.

Lucas, a third grader, said online school is "OK, but sometimes when my hair’s wet I feel like it’s embarrassing. So I turn off the camera.”

Behind the scenes, teachers and administrators are still working furiously to prepare for the physical return of students. And there is still sparring between city officials and unions over safety precautions and staffing levels.

Mark Cannizzaro, the president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents principals, said the mayor’s promise for 2,000 additional teacher to fill gaps created by social distancing requirements still leaves the district “woefully” short-staffed. City principals asked for more than 10,000 new teachers, he said.

The city plans to do random testing of students and staff for the virus starting Oct. 1. The mayor said Monday that a COVID-19 “situation room” would be set up to respond swiftly to school coronavirus cases.