What it looks like inside schools this week
As the first day of school of the new year neared last week, the Department of Education and new Mayor Eric Adams made it clear that schools would not be closing despite the spike in cases of students and teachers who tested positive for Covid-19 thanks to the super contagious Omicron variant. In fact, both the DOE and the mayor remained confident that schools continue to be a safe place. However, parents and teachers adamantly disagree with this assessment. The first two days back to school were quite chaotic—with both teachers and students absent and schools struggling to provide coverage in classrooms. Once again, DOE administrators, some without teacher certification, were assigned to schools across the city.
Briana, a sophomore at Lehman High School in the Bronx, told us that some of her classes had around two-thirds of their normal attendance, and that two of her eight teachers were absent.
“My school was short staffed with substitutes,” she said. “Multiple classes whose teachers were out had one substitute in the auditorium. I spent 90 minutes sitting doing nothing.” And for teachers who were present, the lack of students still affected the day’s coursework. “A majority of my teachers decided not to teach anything new seeing as attendance was low,” Briana added.
Teacher shortages affect safety in schools
Teacher shortages aren’t just affecting the day’s lesson plans. Many teachers are concerned about safety—especially among special education teachers. Alexis, a District 75 teacher in the Bronx, told us a co-worker expressed major concern over safety due to the staff shortage on Tuesday. “What happens if someone falls and busts their head open? Things are going to get chaotic,” she said. “The mayor thinks this is just going to be resolved in two weeks but it is not.”
In fact, the same teacher told us that last week when staff shortages were already becoming an issue that, “One student had a nosebleed and we couldn’t get blood off the floor fast enough as another student wanted to eat it! The gym teacher struggled to keep his finger away from his mouth so he didn’t eat it while I managed three large male students alone!”
Another special education teacher told us that she did not feel her school was following protocol. “Cases in the schools are outrageous, everyone is testing positive and it is not being shared—and protocol [isn’t being] followed. Everyday there is a new protocol and none of it keeps our children or teachers safe. It’s not fair and the schools are not the safest place as the mayor and governor put it.”
One teacher in the Bronx told us that while her school did receive the at-home Covid-19 tests and N-95 masks for teachers, her principal did not give them out on Monday. Thankfully she got a call from the district superintendent and distributed them on Tuesday.
How parents feel
We spoke to five different New York City public school parents and they all agreed that schools should have been remote this week. Three felt that there should be a remote option through the rest of the year while two believe a remote option should have been available at least until the city’s positivity rates go back down. “Let everyone quarantine and come up with a better plan for staff shortages,” one Manhattan parent told us.
One elementary school parent told us, “I feel that the only reason schools are being kept open as they are is merely for people to continue to go to work as well as for funding purposes as opposed to considering true safety. Although protocols are in place, the transmission rate of this variant is too high. At least for this week alone, adequate time should have been given to receive testing.”
The DOE ramps up safety measures, but is it enough?
The DOE did ramp up safety measures this week by distributing 1.5 million at-home test kits and doubling the amount of in-school Covid-19 tests. The at-home kits will be distributed to students or teachers who exhibit Covid-like symptoms or have been in a classroom where there was a positive case, but keep in mind that the in-school testing can only be done on students in first grade and up whose parents have consented to them being tested.
“Not enough parents consent for testing, so I feel the same students will be tested over and over, causing unknown cases. I feel that needs to change,” one parent told us.
It’s about trust
In fact, all five parents said that they did not trust the current protocols that are in place. One parent felt that classrooms should close for at least five days in the event of a positive case while another suggested a partial class closure in the event of one positive case and full closure if more than that.
“I do not receive consistent situation room emails and I do not believe, wholeheartedly, that protocols are followed properly, especially among students. I have constantly seen students removing or not wearing their mask properly as well as no physical distance. Communication levels are something that definitely need to change. My older son’s class was quarantined and I never received an email indicating he was a close contact, only a phone call a few days after. I also feel like temperature checks should be implemented,” one parent at PS 71 in the Bronx shared.
Up until this point, many parents were more confident in the protocols set in place before the city’s response to the Omicron variant. As one mother put it, “I have generally felt somewhat safe sending my children in but it has changed drastically due to this surge. I feel whatever protocols are in place are designed for smaller populations in schools and for when cases are minimally transmitted. I do understand and respect the importance of vaccination and how it can mitigate symptoms as well but people are still getting ill due to this variant. I feel a remote option should be given as part of the protocol.
Despite the overwhelming concern from parents and teachers, Mayor Adams is standing firm on his decision to keep schools open. “Adults must stop traumatizing children,” he said on CNN Tuesday. “We must stop giving this [appearance] that there’s hysteria among the people making the decisions.” He says he will keep schools open as long as health professionals advise that children are safer in schools.
The mayor’s decision to keep schools open is mainly due to mental-health concerns after the effects that nearly two years of remote learning had on students across the city. And 15-year-old Briana agrees: “I’m concerned with going back to remote learning. I was depressed and didn’t do very well with virtual classes,” she said.
It remains to be seen what happens …
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