Teachers are heading back to school after summer vacation wearing masks, a sign that the new school year will be far from normal. 

What You Need To Know

  • Public school teachers returned to classrooms Tuesday, about two weeks before students are set to join them

  • The city issued ventilation reports on individual schools late Monday night -- and closed ten school buildings due to air flow issues

  • Educators will use the coming days for professional development and to determine how best to staff their schools for a mix of in-person and online learning

"This is a major challenge that we are taking on," United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said. "This is the only large school system in the United States opening."

For most teachers, it was the first time back since March, when the city closed all classrooms and shifted to remote learning because of the coronavirus crisis.

The new school year will begin with most students alternating between in-person instruction and remote learning. But 39 percent of students have chosen to only learn remotely.

"Part of the problem is, you know, when you're doing remote teaching and in-person teaching you kind of need more teachers and we don't really have more teachers, so that's going to be a kind of challenging puzzle to figure out,” science teacher Peter Cocheo said.

Cocheo says his colleagues at the Richard R. Green High School of Teaching are returning with mixed emotions.

"Some people are very excited to be back, because they like being with students in the classroom, and not liking the remote, other teachers are a little nervous about coming back,” he said.

One reason for nerves: the city released reports on school ventilation systems just hours before teachers were asked to report. The city inspected nearly 1,500 buildings, and will open all but ten of them. Leadership and Public Service High School in Lower Manhattan -- where not a single window can be opened -- is one school that did not open Tuesday. 

"Ventilation issues have long been a problem in this school and it's taken a pandemic to have them finally addressed,” Melissa Ramos, a teacher at the school, said.

Teachers at these schools will work remotely until the Education Department makes repairs. The Education Department is also seeking alternative space in the event schools aren’t ready for students to return later this month. The DOE has deemed 96 percent of classrooms citywide safe to use, and Mulgrew sought to reassure members of his union that their schools are safe.

"I can understand the anxiety and the fear that so many people are facing, especially after what happened in March. But I can also tell them all that there is not just one entity making the decisions anymore. Everyone is looking at all of the information together and then making the correct decisions,” he said.

Teachers say their biggest challenge will be getting their classrooms and their curriculum ready for students to return to in-person. That happens September 21st. Remote learning begins September 16.