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N.Y.C. Schools Reopen With Joy and Anxiety on ‘Game Changer’ First Day

New York City’s schools reopened on Monday to scenes of joy, relief and anxiety, as roughly a million children returned to their classrooms, most of them for the first time since the country’s largest school system closed in March 2020 because of the pandemic.

The day, always chaotic even in normal times, began with many families and educators nervous about the next few months, as the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant has complicated the city’s push to fully reopen schools.

It represents a crucial moment in the city’s long recovery from the pandemic, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has much at stake in keeping schools open, even as other districts across the country have faced quarantines and other disruptions. In contrast to last year, and unlike some other major urban districts, the city did not offer a remote option to most students.

It is unclear how many parents will keep their children at home — at least initially. Last year, 600,000 children were signed up for remote learning, and while the vast majority of those children seemed to have returned to schools on Monday, a small group of parents have petitioned the city to resume online classes.

Mr. de Blasio said he believed that almost all students would eventually return. Meisha Porter, the schools chancellor, said last week that the Administration for Children’s Services could get involved if families refuse to send their children back after several weeks.

The city’s preliminary attendance rate on Monday was just over 82 percent but did not include tallies from about 350 out of about 1,800 schools. That rate was lower than in previous years, but not dramatically so: First-day attendance in recent pre-pandemic years hovered around 90 percent.

The mayor said Monday would be remembered as “a game changer, a difference maker, a turnaround day” for New York City.

Most parents accepted that it was time to go back. In Brownsville, Brooklyn, Debra Gray nervously dropped off her 13-year-old son Kamari, who has asthma, at Public School 323. “We’ve got to give this a chance,” she said. “The kids need time with their teachers. But I’m concerned.”

To reassure parents that their children are returning to safe classrooms, city officials have implemented policies including random testing, vaccine mandates for school staff and quarantines for unvaccinated students. All students, teachers and staff members must wear masks inside schools.

But for all the planning, the online health screening survey that parents are required to fill out each morning temporarily crashed as hundreds of thousands of people logged on simultaneously.

Still, the day went off with few major hitches. Across the city, students expressed excitement and uncertainty about the new year.

On a subway car with broken air-conditioning in East New York, Brooklyn, Neriyah Smith, who is 8, said she was nervous and excited about seeing her classmates again after learning remotely for all of last year. “I made a lot of friends before I was on computers,” she said.

In the Bronx, Jazlynn Gonzalez, 14, hugged herself and stared wide-eyed at the students pouring into Herbert H. Lehman High School. “Ooh, I’m so scared,” she said. “I don’t know what to do, like people come up to me and I don’t know if I should say hi, I just get confused.”

New York, which always starts and ends its school year later than most other districts, is the last major system in the country to reopen. Los Angeles and San Francisco have seen very few outbreaks in the weeks schools have been open, while other districts that do not require masks or other safety measures have seen mass student quarantines. In Mississippi, for example, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, there were 69 outbreaks at schools in the first few weeks of classes.

Mr. de Blasio has long said that the city, once an epicenter of the pandemic, would not be able to fully recover without the complete restoration of its school system, which will allow many parents to return to work. There are indeed encouraging signs: The city’s Delta wave, which was modest compared with much of the rest of the country, appears to be plateauing just as the school year begins.

Monday’s reopening capped months of planning and anticipation for the third consecutive school year disrupted by the pandemic.

In May, amid a brisk vaccine rollout and rapidly declining virus case counts, Mr. de Blasio announced that the city would no longer offer remote instruction to most students. (A few thousand children whom the city considers medically vulnerable will still be able to learn from home.)

His announcement triggered little political resistance in the spring, but his administration has faced growing pressure from parents and politicians to reconsider. Some parents said on Twitter that they kept their children home on Monday as part of a protest against the decision not to offer a remote learning option, but it’s not clear whether that protest will last beyond this week.

Many of the mostly Black and Latino families that kept their children learning from home last year have returned to buildings. But some say they would have preferred to wait at least until their young children are eligible for the vaccine. Only children 12 and older are currently eligible, and it’s expected that younger children will not be eligible until later this year at the earliest.

Mr. de Blasio has said the city is not considering mandating shots for eligible children, as Los Angeles has done.

But New York has gone further than most districts in the country by implementing a full vaccine mandate for all its educators, along with all adults who work in school buildings.

The stakes are enormous for the hundreds of thousands of city children who have not seen their classmates and teachers since the start of the pandemic.

In the Bronx, Jazlynn said that her first-day-of-school jitters were about more than making the jump from middle school to high school: They were about relearning how to go to school. “I used to be very talkative to people, but now I keep my distance and I stay quiet now, that’s what makes me more nervous,” she said.

Standing outside Bayside High School in Queens, a freshman, Nate Hernandez, 14, said he was thrilled to be back.

Online classes made him feel “a little sad and kind of lonely as well,” he said, adding, “It was hard to get to know people.” But now, Nate said, “I can’t believe I made it to ninth grade, to high school. I’m like, ‘I’m going to high school now.’ It’s crazy.”

Nailah Frederick, a 15-year-old sophomore at Bayside, said she had been consistently receiving A grades for her work until the pandemic started.

“I can’t learn online,” she said, adding, “I didn’t think my first year of high school would be like that. I’ve missed looking around a classroom and having people there around me.”

The mayor has remained resolute that the school year will proceed normally, albeit with safety measures in place. But it is still possible that significant in-school transmission this fall could force many school buildings — or even the entire system — to shut down temporarily.

City schools saw remarkably low virus transmission in their buildings last year, but most schools were at significantly reduced capacity. Yet even with a low transmission rate at the end of last year, quarantines were still a regular occurrence.

The city’s newly announced quarantine policy will almost certainly lead to frequent short-term classroom closures, particularly for younger children.

In elementary schools, where children are still too young to be vaccinated, one positive case in a classroom will prompt a 10-day quarantine, and a switch to remote learning, for that entire classroom.

In middle and high schools, only unvaccinated students will have to quarantine if exposed to someone with the virus, meaning that unvaccinated students could have a much different school year than their vaccinated classmates. Over 60 percent of New York City children eligible for the vaccine have received at least one dose, but the city does not know how many of those children attend its public schools.

While the city’s quarantine protocol is more conservative than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, New York’s school testing plan is less stringent than the C.D.C. calls for, alarming some parents and public health experts.

A random sample of 10 percent of unvaccinated students whose families consent to testing will be tested in each school every other week; the city was testing 20 percent of people in all school buildings weekly by the end of last year.

Testing will begin this week. Asked Monday about the city’s testing protocols, Mr. de Blasio said that schools can ramp up testing if needed.

The city’s modest testing program has made many educators uneasy, including the thousands of teachers who received medical waivers to work remotely last year. But on Monday, all educators were back in school buildings.

Justin Chapura, who teaches English as a second language at Bronx River High School, said he was nervous and had trouble sleeping before school started. But he was overjoyed to see students he hadn’t seen since March 2020 — some of whom had experienced major growth spurts.

“There’s a million things going through my head: Do I have everything ready?” Mr. Chapura said. “Do I have all my copies made? What’s my first class? What’s my second class? Where’s my lunch? What’s happening? Do I have my coffee? I pre-ordered my coffee in the taxi on the way here — nothing’s going to screw me up today.”

Emma Goldberg, Chelsia Rose Marcius and Nate Schweber contributed reporting.

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Regionales

How Can New York City Prepare for the Next Ida? Here’s a To-Do List.

When the remnants of Hurricane Ida swept into New York this month, the storm’s ferocity shocked the city. Even with meteorologists warning of intense rains and flooding, the swiftness with which the storm turned streets into rushing — and deadly — rivers caught officials and residents off guard.

New York has taken steps to prepare for the extreme weather driven by climate change. For years, particularly after Hurricane Sandy flooded much of the region, civic groups, environmental organizations and officials had raised alarms and urged action to protect from extreme storms.

But much of the post-Sandy work focused on flooding caused by rising waters surrounding the city’s shores. The rains brought by Ida — and two other storms this summer that deluged parts of the area — pose a different kind of threat: massive rainfall in a short period.

The storms exposed how New York City’s aging infrastructure — including its vital subway, built for a different climate — needs significant improvements to adapt to the kinds of storms that climate scientists say will be both more frequent and more intense.

Already, urban planners, climate scientists, some local officials and designers have a lengthy to-do list of design and engineering solutions that can help the city meet an urgent need. (Some say they have warned the city about extreme rainfall for years, pointing to past reports.)

Many experts, local elected officials and climate groups are now pressing more forcefully in the wake of a storm that they hope will serve as a wake-up. Here are some of their proposals.

The most direct way to reduce flooding from rainfall is to drain it away more efficiently. But New York’s sewage pipes, some of which are more than a century old, were built for a smaller city with a cooler climate that generated less torrential rains.

Some 60 percent of the city is served by a combined sewage system that takes in both household wastewater and runoff from streets. Other cities have separate pipes for those two sources.

During heavy storms, New York’s pipes frequently overflow, backing up the system so that water cannot drain as fast as rain pours down.

The city spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year upgrading sewers, but the pace has not kept up with the changes in weather. Projects are underway to separate combined sewers in several flood-prone areas on the Brooklyn waterfront and parts of Queens on Jamaica Bay.

Still, one of the most immediate fixes for the sewage system is the simplest: better maintenance of existing drains and catch basins, the underground holding pens for water that can become clogged with leaves, mud or garbage.

The city’s Department of Environmental Protection responds to complaints about blocked drains, but officials say more staffing is needed to proactively unclog drains in vulnerable areas. Other state and city agencies are responsible for some drains, like those on highways.

Other measures that would reduce clogs from garbage include more frequent street sweeping and installing street-side containers to prevent household and commercial garbage bags from ripping or being torn by rats and spewing litter.

Some steps to better guard the city against climate change carry significant price tags, though experts say the cost of inaction would be even higher.

“Here we are, wringing our hands and saying it’s too expensive,” said Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University who has researched climate change and cities. “Well, it’s actually too expensive not to do the right things.”

New York City has more than 6,000 miles of streets and 30,000 acres of parkland — the green spaces soak up countless gallons of rainwater, but the asphalt sends it sluicing onto the roadways and sidewalks. During particularly powerful storms that water cascades into homes, businesses and into the subway.

Infrastructure and public-space experts say the city needs to maximize surfaces to collect, absorb and slow down storm water.

“The challenge for us is to turn New York City into a sponge,” said Amy Chester, the managing director of Rebuild by Design, a nonprofit that works on making infrastructure more resilient to storms and climate change.

Take the streets. Experts say the city should expand a green infrastructure program that includes installing bioswales, or rain gardens — landscaped curbside areas planted with water-loving vegetation. Many cities across the country have used them to help reduce street flooding.

Experts say New York should use more water-permeable materials for its streets and sidewalks, which it has already started doing in flood-prone areas. The city has used Stormcrete, a more porous form of concrete, to reconstruct sidewalks in parts of Southeast Queens and incorporated stone instead of mortar in the joints between pavers to reduce storm water accumulation in Brooklyn.

“These projects weathered Tropical Storm Ida well, and we have plans for similar work,” said Christopher Browne, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Transportation.

The agency will soon operate a new network of flood walls and gates largely on city property to protect roads and neighborhoods from flooding. These are being constructed as part of a citywide flood protection system in areas like the Lower East Side of Manhattan that can be activated ahead of big storms.

Still, the city can do more, identifying how and where neighborhoods flood and redesign streets and other surfaces to direct storm-water runoff to parking lots, schoolyards, parks and even special retention tanks until it can go into the ground or drain into the sewer, said Franco Montalto, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Drexel University.

“It’s kind of like making streets into urban brooks to convey the water to places where it can safely pond without flooding people’s houses,” said Professor Montalto, who is also a member of a mayoral-appointed panel on climate change.

The city, which has adopted guidelines to ensure that public parks are designed and maintained to be more resilient to flooding, has worked on projects to absorb and collect storm water in parks and recreation areas, including basketball courts, and help them recover from flooding.

Since 2013, the Trust for Public Land, a conservation group, has partnered with the city to rebuild more than 40 playgrounds to absorb and collect storm water. Altogether, these playgrounds now collect more than 23.5 million gallons of storm water a year.

“That’s a proverbial drop in the bucket given the billions of gallons of storm water a year, but we need more of these small-scale solutions because every little bit helps,” said Carter Strickland, the New York state director for the trust.

After Hurricane Sandy — which ravaged the subway system when corrosive saltwater flooded tunnels and damaged crucial equipment — the Metropolitan Transportation Authority launched a significant climate resiliency effort.

The agency has spent at least $2.6 billion to protect subway openings against flooding, replacing pumps and fortifying tunnels under the East River.

Those improvements have helped to an extent. Janno Lieber, the agency’s acting chairman, noted that the tunnels inundated by Sandy stayed dry or emptied quickly during Ida’s downpour.

But the agency’s efforts have focused largely on stations and tunnels in coastal and low-lying areas. Storms like Ida have revealed the need for a broader approach toward mitigating climate-driven flooding; many of the flooded stations were in higher elevations.

Water has long bedeviled New York’s subway system. It was designed with the knowledge that it would practically always be wet: The tunnels that wind through bedrock are surrounded by groundwater that seeps in.

Storm water mainly enters the subway through the staircases that bring riders underground and the ventilation grates that keep air circulating.

“The subway system cannot be made impervious to water,” Mr. Lieber said. “It’s a hollow system.”

Even on dry days, the system can pump out up to 14 million gallons of water, Mr. Lieber said. But its capacity is overwhelmed by the recent storms that quickly dumped inches of rain in hours.

Much of the water that inundated the system was overflow from the city’s sewage and drainage infrastructure, and the fixes that could help keep water from overwhelming the streets would also help keep the subway system from flooding. They would also aid the subway’s pumping system, which sends excess water into the city’s sewers.

But many urban planning and transit experts have encouraged an even more aggressive approach.

After a storm in July, the Regional Plan Association, an urban planning research and advocacy group, released an analysis that found that as many as one-fifth of subway entrances, more than 400 total, could be affected by significant flooding in a storm in which 3.5 inches of rain fell per hour. Ida dropped 3.15 inches of rain on Central Park in one hour.

“The system has been tested from this,” said Robert Freudenberg, the association’s vice president for energy and environment. “And we’ve found where the weaknesses are.”

Sarah M. Kaufman, the associate director at the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University, said the transit authority needed to do a better job clearing its 418 miles of drains and troughs.

A report released last month by the M.T.A.’s inspector general found that at the authority’s targeted pace for cleaning drains — 150,000 linear feet a year — it would require 15 years to clean the entire system. Officials have said that they would move to clean drains on a four-year cycle.

Ms. Kaufman also encouraged city and state officials to think on a larger scale and take lessons from other cities facing similar issues. She pointed to Tokyo, which has built up its flood defenses in part by constructing gargantuan underground cisterns to capture runoff and has put floodgates at subway entrances.

Dr. Jacob, the Columbia geophysicist, suggested that New York could look to Taipei, Taiwan, where many subway entrances were raised slightly to keep out street-level flooding. (Doing this across New York’s subway would require accommodations for people with disabilities, an area where the system has traditionally lagged.)

Mr. Lieber said that the system was exploring raising some entrances. Engineers were also mulling ways to efficiently plug the vents or cover the grates through which water could pour. The transportation authority has already installed “flex gates,” waterproof barriers it can deploy to cover some subway entrances, at stations in traditional flood zones.

Still, any engineering solutions will be expensive for a system already facing financial burdens.

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Regionales

Making Streetside Dining Permanent

It’s Monday. Today we’ll look at “streeteries” — amid a wider discussion about the street space they now occupy and whether the city would be better off if some of them went back inside.

The coronavirus pandemic moved New York City’s restaurants onto the sidewalks and into the streets. Now the city is moving to make a variation of its Open Restaurants program permanent. In July, the city proposed a change to zoning rules that would permit restaurant structures at the curb to stay up indefinitely. Officially, they are only temporary now. The city expects to begin taking applications for the permanent structures late next year.

The restaurant industry, one of the city’s economic tentpoles, is doing better now than it was at the beginning of the year, when the New York City Hospitality Alliance said that 92 percent of restaurants could not pay the rent. Still, Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the alliance, said that only about two-thirds of restaurant employees have returned to work since pandemic restrictions on dining were eased. Restaurants added only 3,000 restaurant jobs in August, the fewest in any month this year, he said.

Complicating the picture for restaurants were two incidents last week. One involved an Upper East Side restaurant that has a shedlike structure at the curb. A 28-year-old man was shot while having dinner outside. The police said he got into a struggle with one of two men wearing masks who jumped out of a sport-utility vehicle and approached customers in an attempted robbery.

The other incident underscored the continuing tensions over vaccinations, as well as restaurant workers’ new frontline roles in dealing with regulations. The police arrested three women from Texas who they said had punched a hostess at Carmine’s, an Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side. The police said last week that the hostess had asked to see proof that the women had been vaccinated.

But on Saturday, lawyers for the restaurant and the women, who are Black, said the three had provided that documentation. The lawyers said the brawl began after two men who joined their party could not provide similar proof.

Justin Moore, a lawyer for one of the women, described the altercation as “mutual combat” and said that the hostess had used a racial slur. But Carolyn Moore, a lawyer for the restaurant, said by email that “nothing about this incident suggests race was an issue.”

From an urban planning perspective, Open Restaurants was not about keeping customers plied with entrees, desserts and drinks — and thus keeping restaurants in

business. It was, and is, about how public spaces in the city can be used.

Daniel L. Doctoroff — a former deputy mayor who is now the chief executive of the urban-innovation company Sidewalk Labsargued in an Op-Ed in The Times in July that planners “need to think bigger than dining sheds,” noting that he was “not anti-shed” but “pro-public space.”

Opponents say that making outdoor dining permanent would compound neighborhood headaches.

One neighborhood where opponents have been particularly vocal is the Lower East Side — “an incubator of what not to do,” said Diem Boyd, the founder of the community group L.E.S. Dwellers. She complained that outdoor restaurants have contributed to an “open-air nightclub, wild, wild West atmosphere.”

Opponents like Ms. Boyd and Cue-Up, an alliance of community groups whose full name is the Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy, maintain that the Open Restaurants plan would amount to a “land grab” for restaurants. Micki McGee, a member of Cue-Up, said that permanent outdoor restaurant facilities would also create “a streetscape populated by restaurants that are no longer serving the neighborhoods but are serving as tourist attractions.”

Worse, Ms. Boyd said she was concerned that the city’s plan would drive out retailers. “The mom-and-pops that you love, the tailor shop or the vintage shop, they’re going to go, because the landlord is going to say ‘I can put a cafe in there, I can have the roadbed, increase the rent,’” Ms. Boyd said. “It’s going to kill small businesses.”


Weather

We’re ushering in the cooler weather, New York, with temps in the mid-70s and the chilly, low 60s at night.

alternate-side parking

In effect today. Suspended tomorrow and Wednesday (Sukkot).


Even after 16 months in charge of a group that gives away daffodil bulbs, Adam Ganser has yet to plant a single one.

Maybe soon, he finally will. The group, New Yorkers for Parks, is busy distributing a million bulbs around the city.

It decided in May — when case counts were lower and the delta variant had not emerged as a highly contagious threat — to resume an annual project it canceled last year because of the pandemic. The daffodil bulb distribution began as a tribute to those killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

“Covid brought back many feelings about 9/11 because it was another big catastrophic event, but it was also very different,” Mr. Ganser said. “9/11 happened in an instant. Covid has been going on for 18 months, and we’ve seen how people have really relied on the parks in that time. Planting something is one of the ways people can feel normal.”

Planting is also anticipatory, which implies hope — will anything pop up in the spring? Will it be worthy of Wordsworth? After all, he beheld a lot of daffodils: “Ten thousand saw I at a glance.”

New Yorkers for Parks hopes to beat that by a factor of 100, doubling the number from 2019. People who want to plant were required to register during the summer. They can pick up bulbs at sites around the city this month.

Some take whole bags of 550 bulbs each. Others claim only 50 or so.

New Yorkers for Parks does not tell them where to plant what they take. It’s strictly FYOL (find your own location) and BYOT (bring your own trowel).

The daffodil project began with an offer of donations from a Dutch bulb company and the city of Rotterdam after the Sept. 11 attacks. Later it became something of a citywide beautification campaign, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, acknowledging the group’s efforts, designated the daffodil as the city’s official flower in 2007.

New Yorkers for Parks has an alliance with the Parks Department and its Green Thumb community gardens program, which will distribute nearly 90,000 bulbs this year. It also hired the graffiti artist Michael De Feo, who is known as “the flower guy.”

He designed a new logo, featuring — what else? — daffodils.

“The daffodil project is the physical version of what I do with paint,” Mr. De Feo said, “and this creates engagement with the city we live in, just like one aspect of doing work in the streets for me is to get people engaged with their city and reawaken their senses.”

Dear Diary:

On a rainy Queens Saturday in early 1968 — or was it 1969? — my buddies Andy, Carl, Charlie and I gathered for our weekly two-on-two basketball game.

Rather than play outside, Carl, who was a student at St. John’s at the time, suggested we go to the university’s gym.

There was a game scheduled for that evening, but the building was open and it seemed empty. As we walked down a hallway toward the polished wood floor, who should emerge from his office but Lou Carnesecca, the venerable St. John’s coach.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

Just looking to play some hoops, Coach, we said.

“Get out of here,” he said, not unkindly.

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Regionales

Cuomo Ally Resigns From Post as State Watchdog

Two top staffers, Melissa DeRosa and Richard Azzopardi, as well as Linda Lacewell, the head of Department of Financial Services, have moved on after the attorney general’s report found they had helped the former governor respond to and contain allegations of sexual harassment.

And three Cuomo appointees to the ethics commission — Camille Varlack, Daniel Horowitz, and James Dering — have resigned in the past month, although Mr. Dering was recently reappointed by Ms. Hochul.

​​Other appointees have found themselves the subject of speculation around their futures. Howard Zucker, whose handling of nursing home deaths as health commissioner attracted wide criticism, remains with the administration. So too do Robert Mujica, who served as Mr. Cuomo’s budget director, and Janet DiFiore, another JCOPE alumna, now serving as the state’s top judge.

A longtime Cuomo ally, Larry Schwartz, chief strategy officer of OTG, an airport concessions company, stepped down from his position as the governor’s “vaccine czar” in the spring. He is still listed on the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, however.

Ms. Hochul, who was sworn in Aug. 24, has said that she will take the first 45 days of her administration to review existing appointments.

Whomever Ms. Hochul appoints, the inspector general, under state law, will continue to report to the governor’s secretary. Under Mr. Cuomo, that position was most recently held by one of the governor’s closest allies, Ms. DeRosa. “If you had an independent inspector general, they would have been very busy during Cuomo’s time in office,” said Mr. Kaehny, the good-government advocate.

Ms. Adair, Ms. Tagliafierro’s temporary replacement, has been with the agency since 2020. Like her predecessor, Ms. Adair is an attorney who has worked closely with Mr. Cuomo, serving as his special counsel for ethics, risk and compliance.

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