Early on Monday, Tiyanna Jackson, who had quit her job in the spring to care for her 4-year-old daughter, Zuri, was flooded with relief as she arrived at a pre-K center in the South Bronx. Finally, with Zuri starting school, she could get back to work.
In East New York, Brooklyn, Balayet Hossain’s day began with disappointment after he brought his two daughters to school, only to find that the children, a kindergartner and first grader, could not return to school buildings until next week.
And in Corona, a Queens neighborhood that was hit particularly hard by the coronavirus in the spring, Baryalay Khan said dropping off his daughter, Fathma, at pre-K made him feel that the city was finally recovering.
“Schools are reopening, it’s a good sign,” he said.
New York City, home to the largest school district in the country, took the biggest step of any major city toward restarting in-person classes by bringing up to 90,000 of the city’s youngest students and children with advanced disabilities back into about 700 school buildings on Monday.
While Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious push to reopen has been fraught with risks and challenges, and has been met with major opposition from some educators and union leaders, no other major school system in America is even attempting such an undertaking during the pandemic.
But at 9 a.m. on Monday, just as the vast majority of the city’s 1.1 million students were attempting to sign in for their first day of classes, the Department of Education’s login page for remote learning crashed for about 10 minutes, a sign of how difficult it will be for the system to balance virtual and in-person classrooms.
The city’s roughly 1,400 school buildings have sat largely empty for six months, after the city abruptly closed classrooms in mid-March to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Though Monday’s reopening falls far short of what Mr. de Blasio originally promised — all students having the option to return to classrooms — it still marks a significant milestone in New York’s long path to fully reopening. New York is one of the few cities in the country where some children are now back in classrooms, with many more expected in the coming weeks.
Across New York City, Monday was a day of joy, confusion and hope; it was a first day of school unlike any other.
“Something great is happening today in New York City,” the mayor said during a news conference on Monday, shortly after he visited a pre-K program in Queens.
Still, the start of the school year here was freighted with anxiety and unknowns, many of which were on display on Monday morning.
At Public School 149 in Brooklyn, where Mr. Hossain’s daughters attend school, five students were turned away at the door since they were not in pre-K.
Mr. Hossain said he received an email on Sunday from a teacher at the school that said, “I can’t wait to see you all tomorrow!” But his children cannot return until Sept. 29. Shortly after arriving, he turned around and headed home with his children, who were wearing masks and backpacks.
For the children who were actually able to return to schools on Monday, it was an extremely unusual first day back. At Public School 513 in Washington Heights, only five pre-K students reported to school. Principals across the city still do not have final numbers for how many students are expected in classrooms this week and next, since parents can opt out of in-person classes at any time.
But some parents said they were relieved to finally have their young children in school.
“I need to get back to work,” said Ms. Jackson, who had left her job at Amazon to care for Zuri. “I trust that the schools can stay clean and stay safe.”
And Zuri was desperate to get back to school after her first year of pre-K was interrupted by the virus. “It’ll be good for her,” Ms. Jackson said. “She’s been crying about not being able to see her friends.”
Many other parents were left scrambling for child care options on Monday, after the city fell short of its promise of offering free programs for tens of thousands of vulnerable students and the children of essential workers — including teachers, many of whom were left stranded without child care.
Mr. de Blasio said on Monday that putting together the child care program, called Learning Bridges, had been even more complicated than the city imagined. About 30,000 seats would be available starting next week, he said.
Over the summer, New York City seemed poised to become the only big school district in America to offer in-person classes at the start of its school year. Despite recent stumbles, New York will eventually have more students back in classrooms this month than any of the nation’s 10 largest school systems — if all goes according to plan.
So far, it has not.
Last week, just three days before schools were scheduled to physically reopen, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would delay the return to classrooms for most students, citing a severe staffing shortage that was created by the city’s attempt to have separate teachers for remote and in-person learning.
The new plan is for a staggered reopening; elementary school students will start in-person classes on Sept. 29, and middle and high school children can return on Oct. 1, about three weeks after schools were originally slated to reopen. That initial scheduled opening had been delayed after the city’s powerful teachers’ union threatened an illegal strike because of safety concerns.
As a result of the two delays, city students have now lost about 10 days of remote learning, though schools held three days of virtual orientation sessions last week.
Mr. de Blasio has stressed that he is intent on reopening schools to ensure an adequate educational experience for city students, the majority of whom are Black or Latino and low-income.
“If what we wanted to do was the simple, easy thing, we all would have said, ‘Hey, let’s go all remote,’” the mayor said during a recent news conference. “And we know we’ll be cheating kids and cheating families. And we know we will be, once again, ignoring the facts that in-person learning is so much better for kids.”
But scores of city parents, including many working families, have said they preferred remote learning for now, citing safety concerns and the need for consistency when making child care arrangements that would allow them to return to work. As of Monday, 46 percent of families had already opted their children out of in-person classes entirely through at least November, with nonwhite parents opting out at higher rates than white parents, and that number is expected to rise.
Fanny Reyes, a mother of two who lives in the Bronx, said she had opted her children out even though her younger child is on the autism spectrum and struggled with remote learning. But Ms. Reyes said she has continued to receive conflicting information about what school reopening would look like and wanted to wait until later in the fall for the city to get more organized.
“It’s very unfortunate, it’s very sad,” she said.
Still, the reopening of some classrooms is an achievement for a city that was a global epicenter of the virus just six months ago. New York now has one of the lowest virus transmission rates of any city in the country, around or below 1 percent.
The children returning to classrooms Monday are in many cases the students for whom remote learning has been most disastrous.
For the nearly 25,000 students in a special district for children with the most advanced disabilities, known as District 75, school is not just a place for academics. It is where students can get the extensive support they need from trained professionals.
In interviews throughout the spring and summer, parents of students in District 75 described watching their children regress in basic life skills and said it was clear how much their children needed to be around their peers and teachers whom they trusted. And educators said it was frustrating trying to deliver occupational and physical therapy through a laptop screen.
And having pre-K classes virtually has proved very difficult, in part because 3-and-4-year-olds cannot log themselves into Google Classroom, the computer program used in remote learning.
During his tenure, Mr. de Blasio has expanded pre-K for tens of thousands of children, and it remains his signature, and arguably most successful, initiative.
For Liza Rodriguez, the start of pre-K meant that she would no longer have to rely on her mother to care for her son, Mason, so that she could work. Ms. Rodriguez said she would miss the comfort of knowing Mason was safe at home with his grandmother every day, but said it was important that he was back at school with his friends.
“I’m nervous,” she said, “but I’m pretty confident things are going to be OK.”
Derek M. Norman and Juliana Kim contributed reporting.