Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday once again delayed the start of most in-person classes in the New York City public schools, acknowledging that the system had still not fully surmounted the many obstacles that it faced in bringing children back during the pandemic.
The abrupt announcement was a blow to the mayor’s effort to make New York one of the few major cities in the nation to hold in-person classes. And it threatened to deepen concerns and confusion over whether the mayor and his administration had mishandled the reopening by announcing deadlines and then pushing them back.
Instead of a triumphant return to schools for all students who wanted in-person learning beginning on Monday, the city will phase students back into classrooms on a rolling basis, starting with the youngest children, who will report to schools next week. Students in pre-K classes and students with advanced special needs will return on Monday.
On Sept. 29, elementary schools will open, and middle and high schools will open on Oct. 1.
All other students will begin the school year remotely on Monday, meaning New York now joins a long list of other big cities that will begin the school year online for most students.
During a Thursday news conference, Mr. de Blasio declined to apologize to city parents for the potentially major inconveniences caused by the 11th-hour shift. He asserted that, because the city’s public school parents were largely low-income and lived outside of Manhattan, “they are people who understand the realities of life, and they’re not shocked when something this difficult has to be adjusted from time to time.
“They’re a lot more pragmatic than you might imagine,” the mayor added.
He said that the further delay would help the city handle a major staffing shortage in schools and would ensure that buildings could open safely. “We are doing this to make sure that all the standards we’ve set can be achieved,” Mr. de Blasio said.
Parents, educators and elected officials almost immediately reacted to the news with outrage and confusion. Many principals and teachers only heard about the shift from the news, they said in emails shared with The New York Times, and many parents said that the decision had eroded their trust in the public school system.
“It is mid-September and there is still no plan on how to educate children,” said Natasha Capers, a public school parent and activist who lives in Brownsville, Brooklyn. She called the delay “a punch in the gut.”
Mark Treyger, the chair of the City Council’s education committee, said, “The mayor of New York is the last person in the room to recognize facts on the ground, and his stubbornness and inability to make sound decisions in a timely fashion cannot be overlooked during this pandemic.”
The mayor said that he decided to delay the start of the school year and opt instead for a phased-in reopening after a three-hour conversation at City Hall on Wednesday with the leaders of the unions representing the city’s principals and teachers, along with senior mayoral aides.
Those union leaders have been explicitly warning for weeks that schools were not ready to reopen for myriad reasons, from poor ventilation in some aging buildings to a severe staffing crunch that the principals’ union estimated could leave the city needing as many as 10,000 educators. A Thursday report from the city’s Independent Budget Office put that number closer to 12,000. Some principals have said in recent days that they lacked dozens of teachers for their schools.
Mr. de Blasio said that the teacher shortage was his main reason for again delaying in-person classes. But he did not explain why he waited until just before the start of the school year to acknowledge the seriousness of the staffing issue, even though union leaders and his own aides have been raising alarms about it for weeks.
The problem highlights the profound logistical challenges inherent in hybrid education, which are even more pronounced in a sprawling system of 1,800 schools.
City students can only report to school buildings one to three days per week, to allow for social distancing, and were set to receive classes at home the rest of the time. But since the city and teachers’ union agreed that educators should not be required to teach both in-person and remotely, schools essentially needed to create two sets of teachers for two complementary versions of schools, one in-person and one online.
It was impossible for many schools to do so with their current rosters, even after Mr. de Blasio announced earlier this week that he was adding 2,000 educators to the city’s teaching pool. He said on Thursday that the city would come up with another 2,500 teachers soon.
Late on Tuesday evening, the city announced that the staffing shortage meant that it could not longer require schools to offer live instruction to students who chose hybrid education on the days they are learning from home. That could mean that a student who has only one day a week of in-person classes will not receive any live instruction for the rest of the week.
Despite the teacher shortage, the administration has been threatening to impose layoffs across all city agencies, including the Department of Education, as a result of the enormous budget shortfalls created by the pandemic.
No large district in the country has yet attempted to reopen schools on a hybrid basis, and New York’s challenges may discourage other systems from trying a similar approach. The nation’s other large school systems decided earlier in the summer to start their school years remote-only, but none have a virus transmission rate as low as New York’s.
More than 1 million parents in New York City have been desperate for clarity on school reopening since June. On Thursday morning, confusion and frustration played out in living rooms and playgrounds across the city.
“It’s such a slap in the face,” said Mia Eisner-Grynberg, a public defender who lives in Washington Heights and was planning to send her daughter back to elementary school next week.
Ms. Eisner-Grynberg said she has court dates next week, and her husband, a public school teacher, is supposed to be in his school building. They do not know if the city’s child care programs will still be operating next week, and she feels her family has run out of choices.
“It’s such a fiasco,” she said, adding, “You can laugh or cry, those are the only options left.”
Over 40 percent of parents have already opted out of in-person classes, and that number is likely to grow, reflecting families’ deep frustration about the city’s reopening effort and skepticism about schools’ readiness.
Mara Tucker of Morningside Heights said she did not know how to explain the delay to her son, who is entering first grade.
“I wish I could tell you,” she said she told him when he asked why he would not be returning to school next week. “I don’t want schools to open if they’re not safe, but get it together,” Ms. Tucker said.
And Joseph Edelson, an 11-year-old who attends school on the Upper West Side, said he had just been video-chatting with his friends about how excited they were for the first day of school.
“When you’re away, you realize how much you miss school,” he said. Now he will have to wait until at least late September to see his friends.
Asked Thursday what his message was to city parents just learning about the delay — the vast majority of whom are low-income and Black or Latino — Mr. de Blasio responded, “I feel for any parent that has to make new arrangements.”
He added: “I know that people will do what they have to do.”
The city’s child care crisis was only compounded by the day’s news.
Marilyn Martinez, a delivery person for UPS who lives in Harlem, said she has been saving up money for babysitting during the pandemic. She and her wife, who works at a hospital, have no choice but to report to work. But if schools continue to be delayed, Ms. Martinez said, “I don’t know what I would do at that point.”
The city’s high-stakes reopening effort has been plagued by intense political opposition and serious logistical hurdles throughout the summer. Scores of educators have raised pressing safety concerns about ventilation and personal protective equipment and have said for weeks they were not ready to reopen.
“Everything seems rushed,” Megan Jonynas, a music teacher at Public School 139 in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, said earlier this week. “Everything seems last minute. We are not ready.”
Hundreds of city principals, many of whom have spent their careers avoiding political fights, publicly pleaded with the city for weeks to delay the start of in-person classes. Shortly after Thursday’s announcement, Michael Perlberg, the principal of Middle School 839 in Kensington, Brooklyn, wrote on Twitter: “I’m beginning to think this is part of a secret plan to mentally and emotionally break me.”
And teachers said the city’s early attempt to trace the relatively small number of teachers who tested positive for the virus — just about 60 people out of 17,000 — was botched, and that educators working in buildings with positive cases were not contacted by disease detectives for hours or days.
Regular coronavirus testing of students and staff was not scheduled to begin until October.
There is no guarantee that schools will physically reopen as planned. If the city’s average test positivity reaches 3 percent, schools will automatically shut down or will not reopen. The average positivity rate has hovered around 1 percent or lower in the city for the last few weeks.
Meanwhile, many New York students in private and parochial schools have already resumed in-person classes. The city’s charter schools, some of which have opted to start the year remote-only, will have the option of starting in-person classes on Monday, even though district schools will not.
Jeffery C. Mays, Emma G. Fitzsimmons, Sharon Otterman, Juliana Kim and Dana Rubinstein contributed reporting.