It’s the first day of school for students in the New York City public system. Notably absent, however, are many of the COVID-19 safety procedures that have been in place since the global pandemic was declared in March 2020.

Students in the nation’s largest school district are no longer required to fill out a daily health questionnaire, according to guidance from the city’s Department of Education. In-school PCR testing is also cut from the curriculum. Masking remains optional for students and teachers, but will be required for those returning to school after testing positive for COVID-19.

While many COVID precautions have disappeared, the disease has not. More than 2,800 new cases were reported in the city as of Sept. 6, according to the Gothamist COVID tracker. The education department will continue to notify school communities about COVID exposures through the Situation Room, the city’s interagency hub for tracking COVID transmission in schools.

Micah Ritter, 9, going into fourth grade at P.S. 32 in Brooklyn. “I’m looking forward to honestly just seeing my friends again, it’s been a long summer.”

Also looming over the new school year are controversial budget cuts by Mayor Eric Adams to the tune of more than $200 million in the first year alone due to declines in enrollment. Some parents and many educators are outraged by the cuts and point to billions of dollars in federal stimulus funding they say should make cuts unnecessary. Schools statewide are also seeing a bump in funding from Albany, adding to frustrations over the cuts amid a rare surplus of cash for education.

On top of COVID fears and budget concerns are students’ learning losses during the pandemic. National test scores for math and reading among 9-year-olds fell during the pandemic, setting averages back decades on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly referred to as the nation’s report card. Public officials have also increasingly recognized the psychological and emotional trauma experienced by children over the last two years. The U.S. surgeon general last year warned of a worsening mental health crisis among children and teens.

We spoke to parents and students at drop-off about how they’re feeling about the first day, the upcoming school year, and more.

The neighborhood's awake again.
Frank Rivera, parent

On a brisk September morning in the Bronx, Frank Rivera said he was thrilled to be dropping off his two children: one a freshman in high school, and the other was starting middle school.

“The children going to school is the pulse of the city,” Rivera said. “Without this, this whole neighborhood was dead at night. But now, obviously this morning, the neighborhood’s awake again.”

Destiny Ramos, also a parent of two, said she felt “awesome” at drop-off. Though not a teacher by trade, Ramos — like many parents during the pandemic — had to take on a de facto role as an educator when schools abruptly switched to remote learning.

“I’m excited for this school year, actually. First school year since I didn’t have to be a teacher,” she laughed.

In Brooklyn, Sharif Brown was dropping off his daughter at Fort Greene Preparatory Academy. He said he was relieved to have her back in a physical school building.

Jason Friday, 9, is going into fourth grade at P.S. 32 in Brooklyn. “This year I’m looking forward to more challenging activities because third grade was a little too easy, so I’m ready for more challenging activities.”

“I don’t think my child learned anything during the pandemic,” Brown said. “She learned when we taught her but for the most part, I’m just glad to be back at school.”

Marian Ennis, another parent at Fort Greene Prep, pointed out that she herself wasn’t wearing a mask.

“I’m not as terrified as I was last year,” Ennis said. “And I think this year feels a little like things are going to be normal.”

Public health crises in the background

While most students seemed unfazed by the risk of getting COVID, some students and parents expressed concerns. Amira Brown, a seventh grader at Greene Hill School, a private school in Brooklyn, said she’d like to remain cautious.

“I might keep wearing a mask just for safety,” she said, though her school is not requiring masks this year.

Nicole Preston, mom of 4-year-old Preston Collier, a pre-K student at P.S. 32, said that in addition to worries about COVID, she has a new concern: monkeypox.

Still, she remained optimistic, noting that her son learned a lot in 3-K and is expecting another strong year.

Nerves and excitement

Despite the threats of COVID and monkeypox, most students voiced traditional worries: about navigating new situations and friendships.

Frank Rivera’s 11-year-old son, Mason, was “kind of nervous” about starting sixth grade and getting lost in his new school building, the South Bronx Academy of Applied Media. But he was excited about making new friends.

Ashanti Reyes, a freshman at Mott Haven Village Preparatory High School, echoed the sentiment.

“I’m nervous about meeting new people but I’m excited about new experiences,” she said.

Serenity Israel, 3, was just looking forward to starting 3-K.

Serenity Israel, 3, is looking forward to starting school in Brooklyn. “I’m excited about my classroom,” she said.

“I’m excited about my classroom,” she said.

Meanwhile, her mother, Jillian Mojica, said she’s nervous about potential bullying. She was less concerned about COVID – they’ve already had it.

Jason Friday, a fourth grader at P.S. 32 in Brooklyn, was more than ready for the year to start. “I’m looking forward to more challenging activities," he said, “because third grade was a little too easy.”

Stefania Lind, dropping off her daughter Genesis Galindo at P.S. 46 in Fort Greene, noted the bittersweet nature of the moment.

“I’m a little sad because I don’t have a baby anymore,” Lind said. “Fifth grade. She’s graduating!”