Students at several high schools in New York City coordinated a walkout from classes on Tuesday to call for remote learning as they protest what they say are unsafe learning conditions inside school buildings as COVID cases surged just as the spring semester began last week.
A campaign mounted by students and activists across some of New York’s best-known high schools – including Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant – led to a walkout shortly before noon on Tuesday.
While precise numbers were not immediately available, organizers estimated hundreds of students participated, with about 400 students walking out at Brooklyn Tech alone.
“Students that have parents that are immunocompromised, students that are themselves immunocompromised, I can't imagine how anxious they are to go into a building and feel like they're putting their lives at risk every day,” said Sarah Ismile, a 16-year-old student standing outside Brooklyn Tech.
“The main goal we have is to have a temporary shutdown of schools in NYC and a hybrid option for students who have food insecurities or who need childcare. We also want more COVID testing for students and staff and an improved [Department of Education] health screening,” said Samantha Farrow, 16, a junior at Stuyvesant, in a phone interview. The city says it's testing 10 % of the unvaccinated students in each school, and an equal number of vaccinated students.
The Department of Education said they “wholeheartedly support civic engagement among New York City students.”
“Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our school communities, and we’ve doubled in-school testing and deployed 5 million rapid tests to quickly identify cases, stop transmission, and safely keep schools open. Student voice is key and we’ll continue to listen to and work closely with those most impacted by our decisions — our students,” said DOE spokesperson Katie O’Hanlon in a statement.
The students calling for remote options say in-person learning is currently hobbled, with curricula in holding patterns as scores of students, teachers and staff tested positive for COVID-19 while the highly-contagious omicron variant of COVID swept through the city after the winter holidays.
“The first day I came back to school on January 3rd — all of my teachers were absent except for one. We had lots of substitutes – it was a lot of nothing,” Farrow said. “Some of us read, some of us just sat around. We weren’t learning anything.”
Dorothy Chan, a senior at Brooklyn Tech, said the most recent email from the administration cited 85 new cases among the school community. Brooklyn Tech is one of the biggest high schools in America with 5,921 students enrolled last year, and Chan pointed out the student body takes mass transit from across the city to get to school.
“We have students that come from all five boroughs. And we also take many different types of public transport. And there's also no social distancing in our classrooms, or staircases or hallways, and there are a lot of different avenues that COVID can transmit between students, and it's ultimately not a safe place for students to be,” Chan said.
On January 10th, the city reported 11,825 cases among students, or about 1.2% of the 930,000-person student body. There were 2,298 cases among staff reported.
“I have asthma and other medical conditions and so do the people in my household as well,” said Lauren, a 15-year-old sophomore at University Neighborhood High School in Lower Manhattan where 30-40 students walked out.
Lauren, who didn’t want to give her last name, said classrooms are “semi-empty” at the school. “We kept getting Covid alerts, first 11, then 28, and the numbers keep growing,” she said. “It’s very scary not seeing the teachers that I’m close to.”
Sarah said without enough staff, she’s not learning at all: “I think that my education right now … it's not really being prioritized,” she said. “We're prioritizing just having schools open and coming to school, whereas teachers aren't really able to provide a full day of instruction to a half class of students. That's not what's happening.”
She added, “I think it'd be better if we could go remote. If we go remote, then everybody can get the same education safely from their home. I understand it's an issue with childcare for younger ones. But I think it's just something that we have to get around.”
In an interview last week, Mayor Eric Adams remained firm on keeping schools open, pointing out that many students may be "in communities where they don't have high speed broadband Wi-Fi, where they can't go online and get the education they need."
While Schools Chancellor David Banks said in a tweet that he would welcome discussions with the student leaders, at least one school apparently notified participants that they would receive detention for leaving class during the walkout:
The DOE did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the detention.
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This story has been updated to reflect that schools are not testing 20% of students who have opted into the COVID screening program; they are testing 10% of unvaccinated students who have opted in, and then an equal number of vaccinated students.