Faced with high absentee rates among students and teachers, principals at public schools across New York City are scrambling to staff classes and keep their doors open.

Depending on who you ask, the result is barely controlled chaos, or an exercise in creative problem solving during a crisis. Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, suggested it’s both. 

“Everyone is making it work whatever way they can, fixing things on the fly,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s amazing to see people stepping up. But it’s still not ideal, academically or for safety. It’s just where we are.”

Cannizzaro said one school that was short on teachers earlier this week gathered students in the auditorium and turned on a movie based on a novel they were reading. Other schools combined classes and took students outside to allow more social distancing, he said. Teachers report entire grades in some schools have been combined. The city education department’s central office workers are once again being deployed to fill gaps, administrators and guidance counselors are staffing core subjects, and special education co-teachers are being split up to cover classes. 

Meanwhile, cases reported among public school students and staff have increased dramatically in recent days. The most recent education department data says 13,810 cases were called in among students and staff on Wednesday. Principals reported nearly 13,000 cases among students and staff on Tuesday, following nearly 14,000 on Monday. Education department officials emphasized that many of those cases emerged during winter break, and the dramatic increase is also due in part to a policy shift in which the DOE began accepting at-home rapid tests. 

While Chicago’s public schools went virtual Wednesday after teachers threatened to stay home, New York City’s teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), has not tried to block the schools from being open. President Michael Mulgrew told members in an email over the weekend that he recommended switching to remote learning temporarily to deal with staffing issues, but that Mayor Eric Adams was determined to resume classes in person on Monday. 

“The safest place for a child is in school,” Adams said during a Wednesday appearance on CBS This Morning. “[When] 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.”

He added, “Over 100,000 children are homeless, they don't have the same resources.”

Adams has also repeatedly pointed to data showing students suffered academically and emotionally during the pandemic, a sentiment invoked by many public health officials. Studies found that student achievement was down last year, and Black and brown students “suffered the most.” The U.S. Surgeon General has warned of a mental health crisis among children, including a 51% increase in suicide attempts among adolescent girls.

A rally attendee holding a sign that says "This is not fine!" Students deserve better school safety need to come first

A participant at the rally for safer schools, organized by MORE UFT, on January 5, 2022 outside the Barclays Center

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A participant at the rally for safer schools, organized by MORE UFT, on January 5, 2022 outside the Barclays Center
Max Rivlin-Nadler

But some teachers said neither the union nor the city is doing enough to protect school communities against the omicron surge. On Wednesday afternoon, members of a UFT faction called the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) rallied outside the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. The group wants weekly COVID testing of all students and staff (instead of just the 20 percent of students who opt into testing now required), as well as better masks for school communities. They are also demanding one week of remote school with childcare for those who need it — in order to slow the spread of the virus and establish baseline testing. 

“We are saying we need X,Y, and Z to make schools safe, and leadership is not listening to that,” said Kim Landman, a teacher, parent and member of MORE. “They just want schools open at any cost.” 

She added that many students at home are suffering from the lack of a remote option. "Kids who are quarantining, whose parents aren’t comfortable sending them to schools, aren’t getting any instruction, and that’s not fair,” she said. “Teachers want to provide that instruction, but we can’t do it.”

Carson Chodos, a Brooklyn teacher who attended the rally, called the situation “really chaotic.” She and her special education co-teacher have had to split up to cover for colleagues. “So we’re not even providing special education services, because there aren’t enough teachers.” 

“There's no learning happening right now,” she added. “We're providing babysitting — bad babysitting.”

There's no learning happening right now. We're providing babysitting — bad babysitting.

Carson Chodos, a special education teacher who is covering for absent colleagues

Teachers at two co-located middle schools in Sunset Park held a sickout Tuesday. “Because it wasn’t safe,” said a teacher who asked not to be identified because she was worried about losing her job. She said the goal was to push the schools to go remote until children were supplied with better masks and more tests. Instead, the education department deployed central office staff and principals combined some classes. 

Some teachers said the city was making the right call. “I believe schools should be open right now,” said Brooklyn teacher Stephen Simons. “We are a great source of strength for students right now, for families right now. We’re a place of learning, a place of comfort and a place of compassion and that’s what we need.”

While attendance has been down in recent days, reaching 71% on Wednesday (compared to a pre-pandemic average of 91%), hundreds of thousands of parents continue to send their kids to school. And city officials said there have been no closures this week because of staffing issues.

Robert Clemens, a Brooklyn father of two, said he feels clear and confident about the precautions schools are taking. He said his family was cautious and chose to keep their kids learning virtually last year. But while Clemens said his kids enjoyed remote school, the difference being back in-person, “thriving, being with friends, mentors, being active, is night and day.”

In his first several days as mayor, Adams has been emphatic in his commitment to keeping schools open, saying he believes it’s best for students, and for parents – particularly workers who have no other childcare options. On Monday, he praised administrators for adjusting their programs to deal with staffing shortages, even if it meant disrupting students’ routines. 

“That’s what it’s going to take to get through this,” he said. “Opening up gym spaces, auditoriums … I commend them.”

He even likened them to his mother, a single mom raising six children. “Everyday she figured out ‘[how] am I going to put it together,’” he said.  

But Cannizzaro said administrators who are now juggling staffing challenges, tracking Covid cases, overseeing testing and distributing test kits are struggling.

“They’re making it work and they’re putting on their best face for their staff, their students, for their parents, for everybody, but the truth is they’re not okay,” he said. “The thing that concerns me is it’s not sustainable.”