School still in session despite parent, teacher anxiety

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Teachers and parents rally for a remote option at the Barclays Center on Jan. 5
Photo by Adrian Childress

City officials are holding firm on their intentions to keep schools open, despite still-rising COVID-19 caseloads and a bevy of protests from parents, faculty, and students.

Mayor Eric Adams, throughout his first week in office, has not reneged on his promise to keep schools open throughout the Omicron surge, citing concerns over the inequity involved in remote learning, along with the detrimental effect it’s had on the mental health of students.

“The safest place for a child is in school,” Adams said on CBS News on Wednesday. “Little Johnny’s not in school, he’s not in this room. He’s in the streets, you know, he doesn’t have his mask on.”

“And then you go to those communities where they don’t have high-speed broadband Wi-Fi, where they can’t go online and get the education they need,” Hizzoner continued. “Over 100,000 children are homeless, they don’t have the same resources.”

In an effort to contain outbreaks, schools have been randomly PCR testing a cadre of students that have submitted permission slips on a weekly basis. The testing pool includes vaccinated and unvaccinated students, but the number tested is only chained to 20 percent of the unvaccinated student population.

The state has also distributed millions of at-home tests to public schools. At present, no schools are closed due to COVID outbreaks, and only 19 classrooms throughout the system are closed, according to DOE data.

As of Thursday evening, the DOE reported 13,179 positive COVID cases among those in the public school system, including 10,932 students and 2,247 staff members. As there are over 1 million public school students in New York City, the transmission rate is actually lower than the city at-large — but since only students who submit consent forms are being tested, that rate is likely an undercount. 

Over 46,000 New Yorkers, including 13,000 Brooklynites, tested positive for COVID on Jan. 5, according to state data, which does not include positive at-home tests, as there is no official channel to report those results.

DOE’s attendance rate on Jan. 6 was a dismal 72 percent, which was nonetheless an improvement over previous days, when the attendance rate hovered in the 60s.

“The mayor is lying when he says the schools are the safest place for them to be right now,” said Rosy Clark, a preschool teacher at PS 58 in Carroll Gardens, at a Wednesday rally at the Barclays Center organized by Movement of Rank and File Educators, a dissident caucus of the United Federation of Teachers.

A sign in the crowd reads, “This is not fine.”Photo by Adrian Childress

Hospitalizations have risen dramatically as Omicron rampages through five boroughs. Of particular concern has been a marked increase in pediatric hospitalizations, especially given the fact that only about 44 percent of children ages 5-17 have gotten vaccinated.

“The mayor claims that all we need to beat this pandemic is swagger,” said Carolyn Tyner, a 7th-grade teacher at Sunset Park Prep, on Wednesday. “I think that is a heartless and disrespectful thing to say to the 60,000 New Yorkers who have lost their lives to COVID and the many more who are hospitalized right now.”

The DOE has not been nearly supportive enough of educators teaching through the Omicron wave, attendees said, arguing that more and better masks and more testing are needed. “They gave us fake KN95 masks that have holes in them,” said Annie Tan, a special education teacher in Sunset Park. “That are ineffective. That were recalled.”

The educators want the city’s schools to shift to remote learning for a week to help drive down cases, and to improve ventilation in school buildings.

Educators not only say they feel unsupported by DOE and the mayor, but also by their own union leadership; UFT president Michael Mulgrew has said that he recommended to the mayor that schools switch over to remote learning, but that Hizzoner is adamant in keeping them open. That differs from the situation in Chicago, where teachers are currently in a standoff with the city leading to systemwide closures this week.

Speaking at an elementary school on Staten Island Friday, the mayor doubled down once again, arguing the push for a remote option is not viable for the city’s most vulnerable students.

“What about the child in a homeless shelter? What about the child that is in a household where the heat may not even be on,” Adams said. “Those are the children, come hell or hot water, they say ‘I’ve gotta get to my sanctuary.'”

This article has been updated to provide a more accurate characterization of the DOE’s student testing program.