The first week of school after the holiday break in New York City left many of the city’s roughly 80,000 educators and well over one million parents with a deeply uncomfortable and familiar feeling — that the profound uncertainty that pervaded the city’s fitful 18-month school reopening process had returned.
Schools in the nation’s largest district opened as planned on Monday, amid an extraordinary rise in cases fueled by the highly contagious Omicron variant, which has again turned New York into a coronavirus epicenter. This week, a new testing system was in place with rapid tests made available in every school. Throughout the week, attendance hovered around 70%.
Two dozen interviews were conducted with parents, teachers, and students this week. While New Yorkers were divided on whether schools should still be open for in person learning, most shared a familiar feeling.
Matt Baker, a high school math teacher from Brooklyn Latin School, said that the week had been chaotic. He straddles Williamsburg with Bushwick. “We’re trying to help kids that aren’t here, but also the kids that are here,” he said. “It’s not clear how long they’re going to be out, we’re just trying to get by.”
“I’m happy that schools are open in general,” Mr. Baker said. “I’m just not convinced that they should have opened this week.”
Mayor Eric Adams took office two days before schools reopened for the winter break. Adams has insisted that the system will remain open despite an increase in hospitalizations and virus cases.
New York is more aggressive than other large cities in maintaining its schools open. This policy has been supported both by public health experts as well as parents whose children have struggled through virtual schooling. However, some parents feel that they would prefer a longer-term remote learning option.
The reopening of schools has been successful so far. In-school virus transmission was very low in the period of a year between when schools reopened and when Omicron struck. But the contagiousness of the variant presents a unique challenge, and keeping schools safe — while reassuring families and educators — has emerged as the first major test of leadership for the new mayor.
“The safest place for children is in a school building,” Mr. Adams said during a television interview on Thursday. “There’s no getting around that. That’s the science, that’s the fact. That is not spreading fear.”
The mayor spoke at a news conference Friday to say that he wanted parents to know that schools would stay open and remain open, despite a string of delays to the school reopening plans.
He and others pointed out all the changes in conditions that have occurred since the pandemic.
New York’s educators were given access to vaccines nearly a full year ago, before some immunocompromised people and other vulnerable groups. All city workers must be vaccinated. Nearly all city schoolchildren are eligible to receive vaccines, but more than half have not had one.
Even though testing is still limited it is more widespread than during previous surges. Omicron is more infectious than previous variants and more likely than others to cause breakthrough infections. However, some evidence suggests that Omicron causes milder disease than previous variants, particularly in people who have been vaccinated.
There is also much less political friction with the city’s teachers’ union than there was earlier in the pandemic; Mr. Adams and Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, have said they are working together closely to keep schools open.
Solange Farina sent her daughter, a freshman at high school, back to school this week in Chelsea. Ms. Farina, who lives in Astoria, Queens, said she didn’t feel nearly as frightened as she did when schools first shut down in the spring of 2020. “But I definitely don’t feel hopeful like I did last June, before Delta,” she said.
“I’m kind of going day by day,” she said. “It’s just stressful living in this moment.”
Attendance data from this past week demonstrated the moment’s challenges. Around a third kept their children home with their parents.
Interviews with parents in the city revealed the division between them.
Standing outside Public School 112 in East Harlem this week, Erica Alvarez said supervising remote learning for her 7-year-old son earlier in the pandemic was “one of the hardest periods” of her life.
This week, she said: “So far, everything is all right. They have made me feel comfortable.”
Yamzi Aquino, his 8-year old son, waited for him at Public School 155 just a few blocks away. He was anxious about his son being back in school.
“I’d rather him be healthy and happy and wait,” Mr. Aquino said. “You’re risking too much.”
In the three weeks since the pandemic, the number of cases in schools has been much higher than ever before. The city’s virus-tracing system for schools, known as the situation room, reported more than 13,000 positive cases among staff and students on Thursday.
Officials cautioned that most of these cases were reported during holiday break when children were not at school and that there was a huge backlog in case reporting. The city started tabulating results of rapid at home tests, and not just laboratory-confirmed P.C.R. The city also started tabulating the results from rapid at-home tests, which are not only laboratory-confirmed PCR.
In an effort to make families and educators more comfortable about returning to classrooms, the city ramped up its school testing protocol in the final week of former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure.
1.5 million at-home rapid tests have been distributed to schools. Whole classes no longer need to be quarantined if someone tests positive. Students and staff can return to school if they have received two negative at-home tests within five days.
Elana Rabinowitz was a middle school teacher in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighbourhood. She was assured that she would have enough supplies to test her self twice per week.
“That gave me some faith that someone was in charge,” she said.
Ms. Rabinowitz claimed that the staff shortages at her school, as well as many others, were not sustainable due to positive cases. She said that Friday saw about half the staff absent and only a handful students in most classrooms.
“As usual we are wearing all the various hats to keep the school running. In a beautiful way, people have come together,” she said. “However, it’s like taking blood from a stone. All that we have been through and all that we are continuing to work with, we’re already exhausted.”
Despite staffing difficulties in many schools the city kept all but one of its 1,600 schools opened this week, despite these issues. Parents were informed by Public School 58’s principal that she would close their school on Sunday night without permission from Department of Education. It was open again by Tuesday.
The city doesn’t have any data about employee attendance for this week. During a news conference on Friday, David C. Banks, the schools chancellor, said the number of staff members in school had been “lower than we wanted to see.” He added that he expected both student and staff attendance to increase next week.
However, just because schools are open doesn’t mean that they are functioning normally.
Pilar Lu-Heda, 17, a high school senior who lives in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and who attends school in Manhattan, said her first day back was “definitely a little bit eerie” because so many students had not returned.
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“Usually it feels like there’s a lot of voices, a lot of people,” she said. “But today there was a lot of awkward silence because everyone could feel there was a lack of students.”
Some of Pilar’s teachers have even held off on covering parts of their lessons, she said, choosing to save them for when more students return. But her teachers don’t always seem to know when that will be, she said.
Pilar stated that three of her closest friends had contracted the virus over the holidays and that she would feel more secure switching to remote learning until the case levels drop.
Mr. Adams, Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Adams said last week that New Yorkers should be comforted by the fact that the city will double its P.C.R. surveillance testing program in schools. Instead of randomly testing 10 percent of students, 20 percent will be tested in each school. This announcement is now more lofty than it is factual.
This week, parents and educators said they discovered that the city was actually determining the number of students tested in a given school based on the percentage of unvaccinated students in that school — but with an expanded testing pool that included vaccinated and unvaccinated children.
Schools with high vaccination rates aren’t seeing the significant increase in surveillance testing that educators and parents had hoped for.
Emily, a teacher in Manhattan who asked that her last name not be used since she was not authorized to speak publicly, said only eight students in her school of more than 300 mostly vaccinated students were tested this week — the same number as the week before break. Interviews with parents and teachers throughout the city echoed her experience.
Two-thirds of families haven’t opted to include their children into the testing pool. This has prompted Mr. Adams to enroll all families in the program automatically and allow them to opt out. Children in the city’s prekindergarten and early childhood classrooms are not eligible for vaccines or testing, which has frustrated many parents of young children.
Some teachers expressed gratitude for being back in the classroom, despite changing policies.
Nathalie Diaz, a South Bronx third-grade teacher, said that only one student who had tested positive for the virus was missing from her class this week. Her school was closed for a few weeks due to an increase in cases. She said that parents and children were relieved to be back at school.
On Wednesday, Ms. Diaz’s class worked on a group project about the Constitution. Watching the students reading off each other’s pages, she thought about how much more challenging the exercise would be if done remotely.
“It is wonderful to be back,” Ms. Diaz said. “I love that now we can kind of get back to some sort of normalcy, considering everything still going on.”
Source: NY Times