Noor Muhsin, 17, is admittedly “anxious” about the first day of school.

The rising senior at Brooklyn’s Millennium High School worries that Mayor Eric Adams and the Department of Education are moving too quickly to loosen COVID-19 safety protocols that she relied on to protect immunocompromised family members.

“It feels like we’re rolling back safety procedures because we want COVID to be gone,” she said. “But it’s not gone.”

Muhsin is one of nearly 1 million students returning to classes in the nation’s largest school district on Thursday. The new school year will be the closest to normalcy since the global pandemic was declared in March 2020. Gone are daily health screening questionnaires, and in-school testing efforts have been rolled back.

New York City high school student Noor Muhsin, 17, poses in an art gallery wearing a Beatles tank top.

Millenium High School student Noor Muhsin worried about what the lifting of COVID-19 rules at city schools meant for her immunocompromised relatives.

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Millenium High School student Noor Muhsin worried about what the lifting of COVID-19 rules at city schools meant for her immunocompromised relatives.
Courtesy of Noor Muhsin

Many parents and educators who spoke to Gothamist over the past week welcomed the new guidelines.

“I’m looking forward to the new year,” said Gary Rubenstein, a math teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. “I’m excited to teach maybe without a mask and hope that that works out.”

Complicating the return to school is an ongoing legal fight over Adams’ controversial school budget cuts. In addition to the familiar list of COVID-related concerns, parents, teachers, and principals now are grappling with the consequences of a drop in funding estimated to be $469 million.

“With the budget cuts and with the demands and expectations, I feel like I’m going into [this year] with two hands tied behind my back,” said Pedro Dones, a math teacher at M.S. 363 in the Bronx.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said anxiety levels this year did not compare to September 2020, when schools partially reopened and class attendance was limited to one to three days a week.

“The anxiety in September 2020 was off the charts,” Mulgrew said.

Many veteran teachers, according to Mulgrew, now regard COVID as taking a backseat to the urgent goal of getting students back on track following pandemic disruptions.

United Federation of Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew at a press conference on unsafe conditions at a District 75 school Wednesday.

Teachers union President Michael Mulgrew said his members are less worried about COVID-19 this schoolyear and more concerned about making sure students recover from pandemic learning losses.

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Teachers union President Michael Mulgrew said his members are less worried about COVID-19 this schoolyear and more concerned about making sure students recover from pandemic learning losses.
Jessica Gould/WNYC

National test scores among mostly fourth graders declined during the pandemic, setting reading averages back to the early 2000s and math averages as far back as 1999. The surgeon general of the United States warned last December of a worsening mental health crisis among children and teens.

“You don’t see anyone saying ‘close the schools’ anymore,” Mulgrew said.

The threat of COVID-19, however, remains real. Cases in New York City spiked once more during the summer, as vaccination rates among young children remained low compared to adults, with just 49% of kids aged 5 to 12 fully vaccinated the week before school. As Gothamist reported, about 1,300 minors were hospitalized this spring and summer with the virus.

Some think mitigation measures still have a place in schools. Amy Fair, mom to a high schooler in the East Bronx, said she would like to see more testing in schools, particularly among those who are unvaccinated. A booster shot for anyone over the age of 12 is now available.

Another mom, Daphna Ezrachi, whose children attend school in Manhattan, said masking during case spikes felt appropriate. She described a hopefulness about the new year, and celebrated the Department of Education’s intent to keep schoolwide closures limited to situations where there is “widespread transmission.” (The DOE’s terminology for this remains vague, without a specific threshold.)

“We were very cautious for a very long time,” Ezrachi said. “But we’ve paid a lot of prices for the things we were strict about.”