Danielle Keane, the principal of Public School 5 in the South Bronx, spent months preparing for Monday morning, the first day of school.
Everything was in place: the pipe and drum band from the Police Department ducked under an orange-and-black balloon arch — the school’s colors — and circled the concrete schoolyard playing a Bruno Mars song. Teachers, wearing matching black T-shirts that read “Let the good times roll,” danced along. Inside, the school building was gleaming, with desks spaced three feet apart and masks for anyone who needed them.
“Now, all we need are the kids,” Ms. Keane said.
She wasn’t sure how many would actually show up.
The last 18 months have been exceptionally difficult for the school, which serves low-income Black and Latino elementary and middle school students in a neighborhood that has been ravaged by the coronavirus.
Last year, the vast majority — about 80 percent — of the school’s roughly 600 elementary and middle school students chose to learn remotely. About half of the school’s teachers were given medical waivers to work from home. The cavernous building felt empty and a little bleak, with just over 120 students and a few dozen teachers and staff members milling about the hallways.
For the last few months, Ms. Keane has been on a mission to get all her students back in the building, and to have their families feel comfortable returning after so many months away. Her work is being put to the test this week, as New York’s school system, the nation’s largest, fully reopens for the first time since March 2020 — with no remote learning option.
For the whole summer, she’s been telling parents and her staff: “Life is going to continue, let’s keep it moving.”
On Monday, nearly 90 percent of students on Ms. Keane’s register returned to classrooms, a higher percentage than the citywide average of just over 82 percent.
The school felt as vibrant as Ms. Keane hoped it would. “What a beautiful day,” she said.
A version of Ms. Keane’s push is playing out in all 1,800 city schools this week. Educators across New York City are encountering families concerned about returning to classrooms amid the spread of the Delta variant, with all elementary students and many older children still unvaccinated.
Some parents across the city have refused, opting instead to home-school their children, enroll them in charters with online learning options, or simply to keep children enrolled in public schools at home until they feel more comfortable returning to classrooms.
Ms. Keane believed her students, many of whom have struggled with remote learning, needed to be back in classrooms this fall. But she knew she couldn’t just hope that her families would suddenly feel comfortable sending their children back.
So, Ms. Keane hatched a plan: She would do everything she could to make the school a place that people wanted to be. In addition to preparing for the start of the new year, Ms. Keane became a de facto events planner for her school, dreaming up ways she could get more families engaged. As with so much else in the city’s educational landscape, the success of the school year rested heavily on one principal’s shoulders.
She dealt with crises large and small. Just an hour before the back-to-school carnival was set to begin in mid-August, Ms. Keane got word that two of the dozen or so goldfish she hoped to give out as prizes later that day were floating belly up.
She calmly arranged for the deceased fish to be scooped out of the fish tank with a net, and crossed her fingers that the rest would survive the sweltering afternoon.
The carnival was a culminating moment of Ms. Keane’s back-to-school push, which began even before last school year officially ended. In June, P.S. 5 ditched its planned Zoom graduations and held six in-person events for graduating middle schoolers, complete with caps, gowns and red carpets rolled out on the school’s playground. In July, the school hosted over 300 children from across the city, including many P.S. 5 students, for summer school classes.
Ms. Keane initiated twice-weekly “homecoming” sessions, to allow families that had stayed home last year to get back in the building and learn about safety measures. There were comedy nights for families along with literacy classes for parents still learning English.
But it wasn’t until P.S. 5 hosted an outdoor movie night in the park adjacent to the school that Ms. Keane understood her plan was working. Well over 200 people showed up to one of the movies, by far the best turnout the school had ever seen for any of its events. Ms. Keane drove home that night wiping tears of joy and relief from her eyes.
But as news of Delta’s spread across the country heightened alarm about returning to classrooms, Ms. Keane saw the carnival as her best bet to gauge how families were feeling. As soon as she stepped into the park, she was instantly reassured.
Parents and children she hadn’t seen for many months lined up to embrace her. Children, masked despite the stifling humidity, zipped between bouncy slides with their friends. Hip-hop music blared from speakers, and teachers and volunteers handed out popcorn. Doctors from a hospital passed out masks and gloves, and one briefly took the microphone to encourage everyone in the crowd to get vaccinated.
Over the course of the afternoon, several hundred people came to the park.
Linnette Maestre, who has two children and five nieces and nephews who attend P.S. 5, spent the afternoon embracing teachers and friends she hadn’t seen for months.
Ms. Maestre, who works for the New York City Housing Authority, felt her children would be most safe at home last year, especially since she was in and out of public housing complexes each day. But her daughter struggled to learn to read during remote learning. Ms. Maestre hired a tutor, but said her daughter only began to make real progress when she enrolled in summer school courses at P.S. 5.
Ms. Maestre said Ms. Keane’s enthusiasm boosted her confidence about returning to school. And she appreciated how the principal checked in on her children, even when they weren’t physically in the building. “You have the best principal doing her job,” Ms. Maestre said. “I can’t complain.”
“It’s time,” Ms. Maestre added, for her children to be back in school. “Oh, they are ready. It’s going to be good.”
Henry Gomez, a P.S. 5 parent, started working at the school during the pandemic, filling in as a crisis paraprofessional because so many teachers were working from home. He has grown deeply concerned about children’s mental health after so many months of remote learning. The carnival and all the other summer events, Mr. Gomez said, were a way to signal a fresh start.
“It’s a village coming together to tell everyone they can feel comfortable, to tell everyone, ‘We’re good, we’re in a different place,’” he said.
Ms. Keane sought to keep that sense of joy going right up until the first day of school.
On the Friday before the school year began, her teachers were zipping notebooks and pens into fresh backpacks embroidered with “Homecoming 2021.” Ms. Keane passed out chalk and spray paint, and her staff drew messages on the sidewalk in preparation for the first day: “We are so happy to see you!” and “Second grade rocks.”
Lawn signs dotted the grass outside the school. All were cheerful, with rising suns and flowers and peppy messages. But one stood out, a sober reminder of how much time New York’s students have lost: The words “two years later” were scrawled in blue bubble letters.
Getting children back into the building after a year and a half away has required every bit of creativity and determination that Ms. Keane and her staff could muster.
But it’s only a first step toward achieving something like a normal school year.
There’s so much the school’s teachers don’t know about what hundreds of children who were remote last year have been through. The academic and mental health challenges that will reveal themselves in the coming days and weeks may be enormous.
And the school’s staff members have had to wrestle with their own trauma and fear. Last week, Ms. Keane assembled all her teachers in the building for the first time in a year and a half. They held a moment of silence for everything they had all been through. The staff members and teachers who came to work every day last year received a standing ovation.
Isabel Calderon was one of those teachers. Some days, she had just four students in her prekindergarten class for 3-year-olds.
“It’s not a life, that’s not a school life,” she said. “You need people, you need that energy, and we didn’t have that.”
But P.S. 5’s teachers know the school may not feel like it used to 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 everybody to find their happy again,” said Simone Shenloogian, a kindergarten teacher. “I think we’ll be creating a new normal together.”