Editorial: Progress report: The nation's largest school system is open; that's an achievement (with caveats)

One week into the school year, all 1,800 New York City public schools are open to in-person learning for all students. That’s a substantial achievement — with an asterisk to be informed by unknowns that need to be answered quickly.

© Michael Loccisano/Getty Images North America/TNS Laura Lai, a teacher at Yung Wing School P.S. 124, surveys her classroom in preparation for the coming start of school on September 2, 2021 in New York City.

What we know is that, after two years disrupted by COVID, kids flooded back into the schools, masks on. New York is in the minority of big-city districts by sending almost all its kids back into classrooms, which is where they should be if they’re going to learn optimally. Here, only a few thousand youngsters with special medical conditions qualify for at-home learning.

The first reason for an asterisk is that the Department of Education, while touting rising attendance numbers (around 85%, from schools that are reporting so far), won’t say how many pupils are back. It matters whether it’s a million, or 800,000, or fewer.

The second is that we don’t yet know how readily COVID’s delta variant is spreading, and if it is, who may be getting seriously sick. As of Friday, 258 full and 211 partial classroom closures were in effect, the result of 560 confirmed positive cases. But because the DOE chose to test less frequently than last year — a random sample representing 10% of unvaccinated kids whose parents have voluntarily consented are being checked, every other week, with the exception of pre-K and kindergarten kids, who aren’t being tested at all — we don’t know whether many more children might be bringing COVID home.

In the coming weeks, carefully watch kids’ positivity rates, and as importantly, pediatric hospital admissions. If there’s a growth in serious cases, that could be cause for alarm.

The third reason for the asterisk is that schools have yet to determine how much learning loss occurred under COVID. That’ll happen when kids get assessed, soon. Then, it’ll be the job of teachers not only to catch them up, but to move them forward, acquiring more skills and knowledge. After all, that’s the point of school.

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