When Mayor Bill de Blasio reopened elementary schools this week, many New York City parents who had been keeping their children home were offered a last chance to send them back into classrooms this school year.
Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller, struggled with the decision, both as a leading mayoral candidate and as a parent of two elementary students. He lost his mother to the coronavirus in April.
He and his wife were nervous about their children’s safety, but they had seen mixed results with remote learning: Their oldest, Max, was having a particularly difficult time learning on an iPad.
So they decided to send Max, who is 9, back to school while keeping their younger son at home. On Monday, Mr. Stringer and his wife accompanied Max on a No. 1 subway train and sent him off to school for the first time since March.
“After months of debating and thinking and trying to arrive at the right thing, it really was good to see he was happy,” Mr. Stringer said after dropping him off.
If Mr. Stringer wins the race for mayor next year, his experience as a public school parent during the pandemic is likely to inform how he guides the school system out of a crisis that could set back a generation of students. The Democratic primary on June 22 is expected to focus on who is the best person to bring the city back, and all of the candidates have criticized Mr. de Blasio’s handling of reopening schools.
Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat with a year left in office, has been applauded for pushing to reopen New York’s school district, the nation’s largest, when so many cities have not. But he has also angered parents who feel whiplash from the mayor’s shifting strategy, which has resulted in two delays to the start of the school year and then a schools shutdown based on a metric that many found arbitrary.
Mr. de Blasio, who takes pride in the fact that his two children attended public schools, oversees a system that has roughly 1.1 million students who have endured a year of educational challenges ranging from difficult to appalling. About three-quarters of students are considered poor and more than 100,000 are homeless.
Many families of color have chosen to keep their students home. Even though there are many more Black students than white students in the system overall, nearly 12,000 more white children have returned to public school buildings than Black children.
Mr. Stringer, a Democrat who has moved to the left as progressives capture momentum in his party, is the best-known mayoral candidate whose children attend public schools. He said he was most worried about poor families.
“We’re privileged parents, and we struggled,” he said. “I just cannot imagine parents with very little resources who are going to have to really worry about their children falling further behind.”
Other candidates have seen the challenges up close: Raymond J. McGuire, a business executive, has a son in second grade who attends a private school and has been doing a mix of in-person and remote learning; Maya Wiley, a former top counsel for Mr. de Blasio, has a daughter who attends a private high school and is learning from home; Zach Iscol, a nonprofit leader and former Marine, has four young children, two of whom are attending a private school in person and one who is learning online.
Ms. Wiley criticized the mayor for closing schools in November, and for failing to properly plan for the reopening.
“The last-second decisions and poor communications have robbed parents and teachers of any peace of mind in a traumatic time and undermined principals’ ability to plan,” Ms. Wiley said.
Mr. McGuire said he agreed with Mr. de Blasio’s decision to reopen schools for the youngest students this week, but said the mayor failed to offer a “consistent game plan” for parents.
“Kids are safer inside a school building than outside of it,” he said. “There are so many things about in-person learning that you simply can’t replicate in remote sessions.”
Several candidates have older children, including Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president; Shaun Donovan, a housing secretary under former President Barack Obama; Kathryn Garcia, the city’s former sanitation commissioner; and Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive.
Ms. Garcia, who left Mr. de Blasio’s administration in September, said she told officials at the Education Department over the summer that they should prioritize bringing the youngest students and those with special needs back five days a week, instead of the initial plan Mr. de Blasio settled on, known as blended learning, where students were in classrooms a few days a week.
“The hybrid and Zoom kills families and particularly women,” Ms. Garcia said.
Other candidates have interesting ideas for improving schools. Ms. Morales, who worked at the Education Department under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, said virtual learning was an opportunity to “desegregate classrooms, integrating students from the Upper East Side with students from Brownsville, the South Bronx and Jamaica.”
Mr. Iscol, who helped manage the temporary hospital at Javits Convention Center in the spring, said the mayor should have thought of creative solutions like converting commercial office space into temporary classrooms. He is worried about students’ mental health.
“We’re going to have to re-establish routines, rebuild relationships between students, teachers and parents, and ensure kids have help developing the resilience to get back to learning,” he said.
Before the pandemic, much of Mr. de Blasio’s legacy was entwined with his creation of universal prekindergarten early in his first term, and his subsequent expansion of the program to include 3-year-olds.
Those achievements may be slightly tempered by his handling of the schools reopening this year, which fell short of the quick and coordinated effort the mayor pulled off with prekindergarten.
Mr. Stringer has called on the mayor to offer low-income families subsidies, known as an “internet passport,” to pay for home internet. Mr. de Blasio, he said, has not been clear with parents about what to expect.
“What we wanted was certainty,” he said. “We wanted to know the rules of the road, and they seemed to be changing at every red light.”
Mr. Stringer, 60, and his wife, Elyse Buxbaum, who live in the Financial District in Lower Manhattan, took Max to Public School 33 Chelsea Prep in Manhattan on Monday. Max wore a mask on the subway while leafing through a book about Eleanor Roosevelt.
His brother, Miles, 7, adjusted to online learning. It was harder for Max. He would turn his camera off or get frustrated when his teacher did not see him raising his hand, said Ms. Buxbaum, executive vice president at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
“He’s a smart kid — he always did really well in school,” she said. “Suddenly, he wasn’t being inspired by school the way he used to be.”
Mr. Stringer said the death of his mother, Arlene Stringer-Cuevas, a former city councilwoman who was 86, has affected his approach to dealing with the virus.
“It was a very tough time,” Mr. Stringer said. “We had to explain to the kids what was happening — carefully. There was no closure. We had no funeral, no shiva.”
“It made me very hesitant to expose my family to Covid,” he added.
The couple decided to keep both sons at home.
Now that Max is back in person, his schedule is chaotic — he will be in class four days this month, including two Fridays and a Tuesday, and at home the other days.
On Monday, Ms. Buxbaum was still overcoming jitters about sending Max back and packed disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer in his bag.
“I whispered to him, please use them all the time,” she said. “Before you eat. Before you do anything.”
Jeffery C. Mays and Dana Rubinstein contributed reporting.