COVID-19, Once Again, Is Forcing Tough Decisions About Remote Learning : Back To School: Live Updates School districts are once again making enormous changes at the last minute. New York City, the nation's largest district, is one of the few holdouts against offering a remote option.

It's Back-To-School Season In NYC. Here's How 3 Moms Are Handling It

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In mathematics, the Greek letter delta means change. And the delta strain of the coronavirus means schools around the country are, once again, having to make enormous changes at the last minute, like adding back remote learning. New York City, the largest school district in the country, starts today. And as NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports, it's one of a few holdouts against offering a remote option for many families who remain hesitant.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There's a crossing guard. She's going to help us cross.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good morning.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Nearly 1 million children headed back to New York City's public schools today, including these kindergartners in Brooklyn.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Unintelligible).

KAMENETZ: At a press conference last week, New York City's mayor, Bill de Blasio, showed off air purifiers and child-sized surgical masks. The message - school is safe. So, please, come back in person.

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BILL DE BLASIO: I say to all parents as someone, myself, who was a public school parent, the best place for your kids to be is in school.

KAMENETZ: Earlier in the summer, that was a much easier call. Cases were down. The CDC had relaxed distancing requirements for schools. And students as young as 12 years old were getting vaccines. In a big contrast to fall 2020, schools were planning on opening up full-time almost everywhere. Then came delta. Cases surged among unvaccinated people, notably including children.

Bree Dusseault is a researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. She's been tracking the reopening plans of 100 of the largest school districts across the country, which together educate around 1 in 5 students. She says that at the end of July...

BREE DUSSEAULT: Out of those 100 districts, less than half had planned to offer remote learning.

KAMENETZ: After the delta wave really got going, that number more than doubled in just a few weeks. Districts like Dallas pivoted fast.

DUSSEAULT: Dallas on that Thursday evening announced a remote option with a deadline on that Monday morning at 10 a.m. And by Monday at 10 a.m., over 1,600 students had signed up.

KAMENETZ: Some of these districts made remote learning available only to students who were too young to be vaccinated, and a few are restricting remote learning only to a handful of, quote, "medically fragile students," who have conditions like cystic fibrosis or leukemia. New York City is one of them. That's good news to Natalya Murakhver, a mother of two public school students in the Upper West Side. She led a group of parents who sued the district last spring to open up schools full-time.

NATALYA MURAKHVER: I think the mayor is doing a great job and really trying to emphasize the importance and safety of in-person instruction, which we've known for a very, very long time.

KAMENETZ: But Selena Carrion in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx feels very differently. Her daughter, Aurora, is going into kindergarten, and...

SELENA CARRION: She's definitely not going to start on the first day of school at this point.

KAMENETZ: Aurora had a liver transplant when she was around a year old. Carrion has been trying to get her qualified as medically fragile, but the process, she says, has been opaque. That's true, even though Carrion herself used to teach at her daughter's school. While Carrion wishes her daughter could be with other students in person, she doesn't trust that the school building will be safe for her.

CARRION: Even this past year, with only some people in person, we constantly we're getting shut down for outbreaks, and staff had to constantly quarantine throughout the entire school year.

KAMENETZ: Quarantines are yet another reason schools are having to rethink remote instruction this year. According to the tracking website Burbio, just since school started this fall, nearly 1,700 entire schools in 38 states have closed down for a week or more because of outbreaks. Teachers can struggle to keep students on track with these unpredictable quarantines, Dusseault says.

DUSSEAULT: Each school year, the school system and families continue to be surprised by some new component of this pandemic.

KAMENETZ: We're beginning the third COVID school year, and there's no end to the changes in sight.

Anya Kamenetz, NPR News, New York.

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