primary schools
Primary school students are welcomed back to P.S. 188 as the city's public schools open for in-person learning on Sept. 29, 2020 in New York City. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP

New York City will reopen primary schools on Dec. 7, 2020 and offer in-person classes for special-needs students of all ages despite a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Sunday.

With many parents struggling to care for students at home and with data showing the virus largely spares young children, the city dropped a requirement for schools to close if the rate of positive virus tests exceeds three percent for a week.

New York, home to the country’s largest school district, currently has a 3.1% rate. The mayor told reporters the reopening was possible “because we have so much proof now of how safe schools can be.” He said returning students would be subjected to weekly COVID-19 tests.

The mayor also said on Twitter that five-day in-person instruction, rather than a partly virtual approach, would be the preferred model for schools with space to allow social distancing. Up to now, in-person schooling has been offered only two or three times a week.

Primary schools vs bars

The questions of how and when to resume in-person instruction have been fiercely debated in cities around the world, with parents and officials seeking to balance safety concerns against fears that children’s schooling and social development have suffered.

“We want our kids in the classroom for as much time as possible,” Mayor de Blasio, a Democrat, said. “Our families do, too. We’ll work to make it happen.”

New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo voiced support for the city welcoming back its younger students.

“Just about every professional says the schools, especially K-8, should be kept open whenever it’s possible to keep them open safely,” he said, referring to the first nine years of schooling in the US.

Classes for New York’s middle school and high school students — except for those with special needs — will remain online.

The city, under an agreement with the teachers union, had canceled all in-person classes on Nov. 19, 2020. That came amid a resurgence of COVID-19 that sent the city’s positive test rate creeping up from one percent during much of the summer to 3.1%.

The decision infuriated many parents, who said it made no sense to close schools, with their relatively low transmission rate, while bars and restaurants remained open. They pointed to the example of Europe, where most schools remain open.

Parents argued that schools have had a low positivity rate — just 0.23%, officials said — and that closings disproportionately punish the many children with working parents and the 60,000 lacking computers at home.

New York first closed its 1,800 public schools on March 16 as the virus was surging. They remained closed through June. After the summer vacation, New York became the first big US city to partially restart in-person classes. About 300,000 of the system’s 1.1 million students returned to classrooms.