Danielle Keane, the principal of Public School 5 in the South Bronx, spent months preparing on Monday morning, the first day of school.
Everything was in place: the police department’s bagpipes and drums group hid under an arch of orange and black balloons – the colors of the school – and circled the concrete yard playing a song by Bruno Mars. The teachers, wearing matching black T-shirts that read “Let the good times roll,” danced. Inside, the school building was shining, with desks three feet apart and masks for anyone in need.
“Now all we need are the kids,” Ms. Keane said.
She wasn’t sure how many people would actually show up.
The past 18 months have been exceptionally difficult for the school, which welcomes low-income black and Latino elementary and high school students in a neighborhood ravaged by the coronavirus.
Last year, the vast majority – around 80% – of the school’s roughly 600 elementary and secondary students chose to learn remotely. About half of the school’s teachers received medical exemptions to work from home. The cavernous building seemed empty and a bit dark, with just over 120 students and a few dozen teachers and staff plying the halls.
Over the past few months, Ms. Keane has made it her mission to bring all of her students back to the building and make their families feel comfortable coming back after so many months of absence. Its work is put to the test this week, as New York’s school system, the country’s largest, reopens fully for the first time since March 2020 – with no distance learning option.
Throughout the summer, she told parents and her staff, “Life will go on, let’s keep moving.
As of Monday, nearly 90 percent of the students on Ms. Keane’s register returned to class, a higher percentage than the city average of just over 82 percent.
The school was as vibrant as Ms. Keane had hoped. “What a beautiful day,” she said.
A version of Ms. Keane’s push is taking place in 1,800 schools across the city this week. Educators in New York City are meeting with families concerned about returning to class amid the spread of the Delta variant, with all elementary students and many older children still unvaccinated.
Some parents in the city refused, preferring to homeschool their children, enroll them in charters with online learning options, or simply keep children enrolled in public schools at home until they are finished. feel more comfortable returning to class.
Ms Keane believed her students, many of whom have struggled with distance learning, should return to class this fall. But she knew she couldn’t just hope that her families would suddenly feel comfortable sending their children away.
So Ms. Keane came up with a plan: She would do whatever she could to make school a place people wanted to be. In addition to getting ready for the start of the new year, Ms Keane has become a de facto event planner for her school, imagining ways to engage more families. As with so many other things in the city’s educational landscape, the success of the school year rested largely on the shoulders of one principal.
She has faced crises, large and small. Just an hour before the start of the back-to-school carnival in mid-August, Ms Keane learned that two of the dozen goldfish she was hoping to give away as prizes later that day were floating face down.
She calmly arranged for the dead fish to be removed from the aquarium with a net, and crossed her fingers that the rest survived the sweltering afternoon.
The carnival was the highlight of Ms Keane’s back-to-school year, which began even before the official end of last school year. In June, PS 5 scrapped its planned Zoom graduation ceremonies and held six in-person events for college graduates, with caps, dresses and red carpets rolled out across the school’s playground. In July, the school welcomed more than 300 children from across the city, including many PS 5 students, for summer courses.
Ms Keane initiated ‘come home’ sessions twice a week, to allow families who had stayed at home last year to return to the building and learn about security measures. There were comedy nights for families as well as literacy classes for parents who were still learning English.
But it wasn’t until PS 5 hosted an outdoor movie night in the park adjacent to the school that Ms Keane realized her plan was working. Over 200 people showed up for one of the films, by far the best turnout the school has ever seen for any of its events. Ms Keane returned home that night wiping tears of joy and relief from her eyes.
But as news of Delta’s spread across the country raised concerns about returning to classrooms, Ms Keane saw Carnival as her best bet for gauging how families were feeling. As soon as she entered the park, she was instantly reassured.
Parents and children she hadn’t seen in months lined up to kiss her. The children, masked despite the stifling humidity, slipped between the inflatable slides with their friends. Hip-hop music blared from the speakers, and teachers and volunteers handed out popcorn. Doctors at a hospital handed out masks and gloves, and one briefly took the microphone to encourage everyone in the crowd to get their shots.
During the afternoon, several hundred people came to the park.
Linnette Maestre, who has two children and five nieces and nephews who attend PS 5, spent the afternoon hugging teachers and friends she hadn’t seen in months.
Ms Maestre, who works for the New York City Housing Authority, felt her children would be safer at home last year, especially as she entered and left public housing complexes every day. But her daughter struggled to learn to read during distance learning. Ms Maestre hired a tutor, but said her daughter only started making real progress when she signed up for summer school at PS 5.
Ms Maestre said Ms Keane’s enthusiasm had boosted her confidence to return to school. And she appreciated the way the principal looked after her children, even when they weren’t physically in the building. “You have the best manager who does her job,” Ms. Maestre said. “I can not complain.”
“It is time,” added Ms. Maestre, “for her children to go back to school. “Oh, they’re ready. It’s going to be good.”
Henry Gomez, a PS 5 parent, started working at school during the pandemic, replacing as a crisis paraprofessional because so many teachers were working from home. He became deeply concerned about children’s mental health after so many months of distance learning. Carnival and all other summer events, Mr. Gomez said, were a way to signal a fresh start.
“It is a village that comes together to tell everyone that it can feel comfortable, to say to everyone: ‘We are good, we are in a different place’,” he said. -he declares.
Ms. Keane sought to maintain this feeling of joy until the first day of school.
On the Friday before the start of the school year, her teachers were compressing notebooks and pens into new “Homecoming 2021” embroidered backpacks. Ms. Keane handed out chalk and spray paint, and her staff drew sidewalk messages in preparation for the first day: “We’re so glad to see you! and “second grade rocks”.
Lawn signs dotted the grass outside the school. All were happy, with rising suns, flowers and spirited messages. But one stood out, a sober reminder of the time New York students lost: the words “two years later” have been scrawled in blue bubble letters.
Getting the kids back into the building after a year and a half away took all the creativity and determination that Ms. Keane and her staff could show.
But this is just the first step towards achieving something like a normal school year.
There is so much that the teachers at the school don’t know about the experiences of hundreds of distant children over the past year. The academic and mental health challenges that will unfold in the days and weeks to come could be enormous.
And school staff members had to deal with their own traumas and fears. Last week, Ms Keane gathered all of her teachers in the building for the first time in a year and a half. They kept a moment of silence for everything they had all been through. Staff and teachers who came to work every day over the past year received a standing ovation.
Isabel Calderon was one of those teachers. Some days she only had four students in her preschool class for the 3-year-olds.
“It’s not a life, it’s not a school life,” she said. “You need people, you need this energy, and we didn’t have that.”
But the teachers at PS 5 know that the school may not feel like it has been for a long time. Positive cases and classroom quarantines are inevitable. No one can guess how disruptive the next few months will be.
“I just want everyone to be happy again,” said Simone Shenloogian, a kindergarten teacher. “I think we’ll create a new normal together.”