On Tuesday morning, 6-year-old Andonios Anastsiou will put on his backpack and head to school in New York City for the first time since March.
He’ll be one of the thousands of children in the nation’s largest school district able to get in-person schooling once again in buildings that have been shuttered in the pandemic.
He and his little sister Zoe, 2, have got used to sanitizing their hands and wearing their masks properly and they’re anxious to get into the classroom, even if their parents are more hesitant.
“My son said, ‘Don’t worry, mommy. If I have to, I’ll let you know if people aren’t following the rules,'” Melody Anastsiou said. “I was so thrilled that I was able to even get my 2-year-old to wear her mask so vigilantly and to keep her hands so clean.”
That vigilance is especially important as Melody Anastsiou suffers from autoimmune disorders that will keep her and her husband Orestes, both teachers, out of their classrooms.
“For most of my teaching career, I dealt with many interesting conditions, from autoimmune hypothyroidism to fibromyalgia,” she said. “A year ago, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and that made things very, very tricky because the treatment for these types of autoimmune diseases are generally some form of medication that suppresses your immune system.” She added: “I live in a state of fear over something as simple as a cold.”
That fear, for herself and for other educators and students, has Anastsiou questioning the logic of reopening schools for in-person instruction now.
“The decision that the city made in forcing this very large school system to go back to normal is like forcing a square peg into a round hole,” she said.
“I think that if the whole city agreed to stay remote for now, like other large school systems have decided … I think that would have been a safer way to go.”
New York under scrutiny
Most of the nation’s other largest school districts — from Los Angeles to Chicago and Houston — have started the new school year online only. Among those that have opened their classrooms, there have been outbreaks of coronavirus that have sent thousands of students and teachers into quarantine and even forced the temporary closure of some schools.
New York City’s rate of positive coronavirus tests hovers at about 1%, among the lowest in the country. It is offering all online instruction as well as one to three days a week of in-school learning as options to its more than 1.1 million students.
The planned first day of school has been pushed back several times to resolve disputes with unions representing some of the city’s 75,000 schoolteachers as well as to make sure schools had proper ventilation, Covid testing and protective equipment.
There will now be a Covid situation room to monitor testing and contact tracing and an additional 4,500 teachers are being hire.
Some 90,000 preschoolers and students with special needs resumed face-to-face instruction in the city last week and Mayor Bill de Blasio insists he’s taking the right path to open schools.
“If we wanted to take the easy way and cheat our kids, we could have gone all remote a long time ago,” de Blasio said.
Anastsiou is still hesitant to send her children to school for most of the week, especially with both her and her husband qualified to work from home because of her medical condition.
“There’s an extreme amount of guilt, I think any parent could understand that,” she told CNN.
And in an email after her interview, she wrote: “I will always send them off to school filled with concern but also with the hope that I have done enough and taught them enough to prepare and protect them.
“Even though my husband and I are at risk when we send them out and they return, the irony is not lost on me that my children have to attend some in person learning so that we can do our job well.”