Remote learning may be an option for New York City public schools after all, Mayor Eric Adams said Thursday, after days of resisting pressure from a growing contingent of educators and students, while roughly a quarter of the system’s students have been absent from school during the current COVID surge.

“We do have to be honest that there's a substantial number of children for whatever reason, parents are not bringing them to school," the mayor said during a press conference, in response to a question on whether he'd entertain a remote learning option. "I have to make sure children are educated."

The highly transmissible omicron variant of COVID has pummeled New York City just as public schools returned from winter break, and many students have stayed away from classrooms —either out of caution, because they have tested positive or have been exposed — as calls for an immediate remote learning option mounted.

On Wednesday, the city reported attendance was around 76% across the public school system, with about 225,000 students of the 938,000-student system not reporting for school. In comparison, attendance in 2019 averaged 91% across the system.

Adams has long insisted that in-person learning was the only course for New York City’s public school system, citing the many children who are dependent on social services and meals provided by schools, as well as the families who count on open school buildings for stability.

As recently as Wednesday, Adams had shied away from remote learning as an option, at least in the immediate future.

During a phone conference Wednesday with local officials, who sent a letter to City Hall calling for a remote option, Adams commented that “doing due diligence for everything, to put everything in order, would take six months” to build such a program, according to State Senator Jabari Brisport who was on the call, first reported by The 74.

Follow-up questions to the mayor’s office and the Department of Education were not answered Thursday.

Schools Chancellor David Banks also seemed supportive of a temporary remote learning option in a virtual meeting with parent leaders Thursday morning.

Chalkbeat reported that Banks said, “If I could figure out a way to do a remote option starting tomorrow, I would … It’s not quite as simple as that because you have to negotiate this stuff with the unions."

The United Federation of Teachers union said in response that they’ve been fighting for a remote option this entire school year.

"Clearly the Chancellor has been misinformed about the UFT’s position. We have long called for an instructionally sound remote option and have been speaking directly to the Mayor about creating one, a program that will work for students,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew in a written statement Thursday.

The calls for remote learning have hit a new peak since school resumed January 3rd, with hundreds of high school students walking out of class Tuesday to protest the lack of remote options and what they called unsafe, crowded learning conditions inside school buildings.

Teacher and staff absences have compounded the lack of instruction and sense of chaos, with students and educators reporting combined classes or substitute teachers effectively serving as babysitters.

“We don’t have full instruction and sometimes we don’t even have a teacher overlooking us in those classrooms,” said Stephanie, a Brooklyn Tech High School student who didn’t want to give her last name. “It seems like everyone around you is getting sick.”

Still, as absences continued mounting – 6,512 student cases of COVID and 1,002 staff cases were reported in the school system on Wednesday alone – educators have updated their policies on how kids quarantining at home will continue learning.

In a memo sent to principals Wednesday, the Department of Education reiterated that families voluntarily staying home without a positive COVID exposure or test will not be entitled to separate instruction or office hours with teachers.

“Teachers cannot be required to provide asynchronous instruction and Office Hours…(if) a family is keeping a student home and is requesting all assignments,” said the memo from First Deputy Chancellor Dan Weisberg. “For these students, staff are expected to engage in normal past practices with respect to non-COVID student absences.”

The DOE memo left the door open for willing teachers and staff to work with absent students: “However, if staff are willing and their supervisor approves, staff may provide Office Hours and asynchronous instruction to these students and shall be compensated accordingly.”

Meanwhile, Adams has emphasized increased surveillance testing in schools as his primary response to the surge, with testing now conducted on 10% of unvaccinated K-12 students in every school, and an equal number of vaccinated students.

During the first week of the “Stay Safe and Stay Open” campaign last week, 67,687 students and 11,099 staff members were tested onsite as part of school surveillance testing - about 1.7 times as much student testing compared to a month ago, according to data provided by the DOE and analyzed by WNYC/Gothamist.

That means about 8% of grade 1-12 students got tested last week. Students in kindergarten, 3K and Pre-K programs are not part of surveillance testing, and students who don’t opt in to the surveillance program are also not part of the testing pool.

State Senator Jessica Ramos, who was also on the Wednesday call with Adams, said the city needs to stop punishing kids who are staying home out of caution.

“If they're immunocompromised, and their parent is making the conscientious decision perhaps even with their doctor to keep the child home, why should that child be marked completely absent?," she said. "If they're actually able to log on and keep up with homework and such?"

Brisport said the mayor needs to address the current situation quickly instead of focusing on a permanent long-term solution. “We need to build a system, even if it's not perfect, that is able to bring more people their education,” he said.

Adams said he was in talks to revisit remote learning "if we can do it, and it is a quality option," but added, "My goal — I want children in school."

This article has been updated to note that kindergarten students are not part of surveillance screening.