4 things to watch this school year in NYC

A possible bus driver strike, thousands of new asylum-seeker students and a new reading curriculum will all define this year in the sprawling public school system.

Union leaders said they would hold off on a possible strike during the first two days of school.

Union leaders said they would hold off on a possible strike during the first two days of school. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

All across the city, around 900,000 public school students flowed into New York City schools Thursday morning poised to start a new academic year amid fresh opportunities and some challenges – both new and old. 

Things have come a long way since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools across the city during the spring of 2020, but schools have continued to face and adapt to new challenges ranging from the arrival of tens of thousands new asylum-seeking students to a heatwave coinciding with the start of the new academic year. 

New York City education leaders gathered outside of P.S. 121 Throop in the Bronx Thursday morning to kick off the new school year, greeting students and further introducing plans to reimagine how reading is taught in classrooms going forward. There, leaders painted a rosy picture of the road ahead, pushing back on concerns attached to the school year. 

“We’ve got a lot of challenges this year, we are going to speak about them, but that’s not new. If you work in a New York City public school every day there are challenges. We come to work every day with a plan knowing that the plan is never going to come to fruition,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said. “There’ll be crises, and there will be beautiful moments, but it is up to us as the adults to make sure we are taking advantage of every opportunity to show children how adults should act and also use these things as ways to educate them.”

Here are four things to watch heading into the new school year. 

21,000 new students 

Around 21,000 newly arrived asylum-seeking students have enrolled in New York City schools since last summer, 2,500 of whom arrived since July, according to the Education Department. The vast majority of these students have been part of their school’s communities since last year and parents, teachers, and their fellow students have welcomed them with open arms, even forming volunteer “borough response teams,” gathering donations, and much more. It’s likely that more families with children will arrive in the months ahead. 

While there is no shortage of room in New York City schools for these students in wake of enrollment declines – although some individual schools have reportedly reached capacity – the sheer volume of new arrivals has tested city schools even in a school district with a long track record of welcoming immigrant children. Advocates, while sympathetic to city officials' ongoing unanswered pleas for federal aid and appreciative of the system’s sweeping efforts to welcome new arrivals, are closely watching how city schools meet asylum-seekers’ needs. Some migrant students faced delays getting enrolled in schools over the summer and concerns about the lack of bilingual educators remain, even as the city has hired hundreds more in recent months and announced eased tenure rules. 

Reading changes

New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ and Schools Chancellor David Banks’ emphasis on reading is no secret. Pointing to the fact that roughly half of third to eighth grade New York City public school students don’t read at their grade level, Banks has repeatedly expressed his intention to turn around what he’s described as many public schools’ “fundamentally flawed” approach to teaching students how to read. A sweeping new program, announced last spring, will kick off this fall at around half of the city’s 700 elementary schools. These schools will be required to choose – or continue if applicable – from three different curriculums that have been pre-approved by city officials. The rest of the schools will follow in their stead next school year. It’s a massive change that Banks and other education officials hope will lead to dramatically increased reading comprehension rates across the city – one that shifts toward a more systematic approach compared to the broad spectrum of materials teachers have historically chosen to use. A school in the Bronx intended for children with dyslexia – the city’s first – is also opening its doors this fall. Providing resources for children with dyslexia has been a key issue for Adams.

The end of pandemic relief funds

One of the big questions this school year is pegged to the $7 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds that New York City schools received during the pandemic to help the system recover. While the funds were instrumental to the reopening of schools, city officials also used much of the one-time relief funding to expand or kickstart popular programming. With the relief funds needing to be spent by October 2024, time is rapidly running out, making the future uncertain for programming like the city’s sweeping free summer school program, pre-kindergarten seats for students with disabilities, and 500 new social workers hired to help students with a growing number of mental health challenges. A series of tough conversations will no doubt be carried out this year as educators, parents and city officials will need to make their case for which programs should remain and how.

Potential impending strike 

While it seemed possible last week that the school year would stagger to a start with a school bus driver strike, that outcome is on hold – at least for now.  Union leaders assured parents last week that there wouldn’t be any disruption during the first two days of classes for the tens of thousands of children who rely on the yellow buses to get to and from school. No such promise has been made for the second week of the academic year however. 

For several weeks, New York City schools have been bracing for a potential strike amid stalled negotiations between ​​the Amalgamated Transit Union – which represents roughly half of the city’s public school bus drivers – and city-contracted school bus companies. 

The Department of Education has outlined alternative arrangements should the strike occur, including plans to provide families with emergency MetroCards. The city would offer eligible students with disabilities and those living in temporary housing or foster care reimbursement for other types of transportation or access to a free rideshare service. Still, a strike would have a disproportionate impact on the city’s youngest learners and students with disabilities – both of whom make up a large portion of the over 80,000 children who rely on the buses each day. The union representing school bus drivers hasn’t gone on strike since 2013, a period that spanned about a month.