Even though it had not been closed by the city, Naomi Peña said her kids’ Manhattan high school had pivoted to remote Monday. As COVID-19 cases increased over the weekend, driven by the highly contagious omicron variant, she said the principal polled parents about their preferences. 

According to Peña, 85% of parents said they preferred school to be virtual this week. While she prefers in-person learning for her children, she thinks her principal made the right call to move classes online. 

“A lot of us have been saying all along that the safety protocols are not enough,” she said.

Peña is part of a growing group of parents and teachers who are calling on officials to dramatically overhaul the response to rapidly rising cases in New York City schools. 

As infections surge ahead of the holiday break, they are demanding expanded access to school-based testing and better communication from the Department of Education’s Situation Room, which is tasked with keeping communities and parents informed about outbreaks in classrooms. Since classes began on September 13th, more than 20,000 students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19. About 940,000 students attend public schools in New York City. 

Many families like Peña’s are keeping students home this week, either because of sickness, quarantine or a desire to avoid getting ill in the days leading up to Christmas. As the end of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure rapidly approaches, some parents and educators are also looking to other elected officials and the next administration to ensure a safe teaching and learning environment. 

Declining Attendance as Holidays Approach

Peña’s experience of keeping her kids at home is echoed in the absences recorded this week for the roughly 1,600 schools tracked by the city’s education department. Rates vary widely across the system, but nearly half – 731 – had attendance below 80%. At roughly 70 schools, a majority of students were missing.  

A Brooklyn high school teacher described seeing only half the usual number of students he teaches, while a teacher at a Bronx middle and high school said his school had gone remote with numerous staff absences. City Councilmember Mark Treyger, who chairs the council’s education committee, shared an anecdote about a school with a 30% attendance rate and fewer staff members that was resorting to "using worksheets in place of instruction."

State Assemblymember Ron Kim kept his two daughters home from their Flushing public school this week even though they are both vaccinated. Kim noted that COVID-19 had already taken a tragic toll on his family, with his mother dying of the coronavirus in October and several members of his family – including himself – sickened over the past two years.

“I just did not want to take another risk with our elderly parents who all three of them have underlying conditions. It's really to protect our parents,” Kim said of the decision to keep his daughters home. “I just thought the responsible thing to do for this week was to pull them out and really push for remote options.”

On Tuesday morning, de Blasio said seven public schools were closed because of outbreaks. More than 350 classrooms were closed, and almost 3,000 classrooms were partially closed. The vast majority of schools remain open. But 13 have closed this term, all but three within the last month.  

Some school administrators told WNYC/Gothamist that they’re struggling to staff classrooms because so many teachers are either sick, in quarantine or caring for children who are home. Many schools are relying heavily on substitutes or sending administrators into classrooms to teach. One Bronx assistant principal, who wished to remain anonymous to protect her job security, said the school had to send a gym teacher to teach math class.

Bottlenecks In The Situation Room

Many administrators said the education department’s Situation Room is buckling under the avalanche of positive cases. The Situation Room is a partnership between the education department, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Test & Trace Corps that’s tasked with coordinating a “rapid” response to track cases in classrooms, launch public health investigations and communicate with school communities about outbreaks.

“Sometimes you call and you get a busy signal,” said the Bronx administrator who spent hours trying to get through over the weekend. “Sometimes you call and it would hang up on you. Sometimes you would call and it would ring and ring and ring.” 

As cases surged last week, the education department formalized what many principals had already been doing. School administrators were informed that they do not need to wait for confirmation from the Situation Room before they inform close contacts to quarantine. This allows principals to inform parents more quickly when their child is exposed, although the principals’ union said it also adds to administrators’ already overflowing plates. 

But the Situation Room is still in charge of deciding when to launch investigations and shutter schools because of widespread transmission within the school. Some educators worry the delays in making these final decisions are allowing cases to multiply within schools. 

De Blasio said Monday the city had “immediately beefed up” Situation Room staff following the spike in cases last week. According to education department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer, staffing is increasing from 275 to 500. 

Since December 13th, a discrepancy has also emerged in how the Situation Room reports cases to the public. The number of new infections reported each day doesn’t match the growth seen on a daily basis for cumulative case toll – the total number of cases recorded this school year. The blip has the effect of obscuring just how many infections the office is confirming each day. 

Over the last week, for example, the Situation Room has reported an average of 561 new student and staff cases per day. But the cumulative case count has actually increased by an average of 781 cases per day, suggesting that new cases are underreported.

Asked about the discrepancy, the education department explained that cases confirmed after 6:00 p.m. are added only to the total case count, not the daily case count.

Opting to Go Remote

As some parents kept students at home and growing numbers of students quarantined, multiple schools that remained officially open made assignments available online as well. 

Peña, who is president of Community Education Council 1 on the Lower East Side and whose children’s school opted to go remote, said instruction was asynchronous on Monday as teachers planned several days of live virtual instruction for the remainder of the week. Students who elected to come into the building were allowed to learn virtually from classrooms. 

Assemblymember Kim also said the administration at his daughters’ school in Flushing initiated remote learning on its own.

“I feel like every school has a slightly different way of implementing things and our school – PS 32 – the teachers are literally working nonstop to give hybrid, in-class and remote options to our students, so they don't miss a day,” Kim said.

Many federal and local officials emphasize the importance of in-person schooling for students’ physical and mental health, and have advised keeping schools open whenever possible. 

Even with the closures and some parents opting to keep their kids home, “hundreds of thousands of students are benefiting from in-person learning and doing so in a safe way because of the protocols that we have put in place,” New York City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi said during a press conference Monday.

Calls For More Testing

Teachers demonstrated outside several schools this week calling on the education department to ramp up testing fast. 

“We’re calling for expanded access to testing,” Michael Stivers, science teacher at Millennium Brooklyn High School in Park Slope, said, after he and his colleagues rallied outside the school.

The city currently tests 10% of unvaccinated staff and students — if they or their parents consent — at each school every week. But many educators and parents argue this program is far too limited to catch infections before they spread. 

People, including children, wait to get COVID tests in Manhattan on December 19, 2021

One obstacle is that families must proactively opt-in to the testing – and only a relatively small portion of eligible families have chosen to do so. As of early December, less than a quarter of all K-12 students had agreed to participate in the testing program. Parents say that has led to the same students being screened over and over again. 

Teachers from Stivers’ school and the three others at Brooklyn’s John Jay Campus are demanding onsite testing for all students and staff considered close contacts of any positive case, which isn’t currently offered. They’re also calling for in-school testing for all students or staff who seek it, including vaccinated ones. Teachers held similar protests at Grace Dodge High School in the Bronx and IS 230 in Queens. 

Experts said only testing unvaccinated individuals  makes it difficult to evaluate how much COVID is circulating in the school system. As more children get vaccinated, the testing pool is shrinking, and given the number of breakthrough infections associated with the omicron variant, that could create unnoticed opportunities for transmission. 

The city recently announced that vaccinated teachers can seek at-school tests if they want to, but only if leftover slots are available  after students are finished testing for the day. They also have to submit consent forms up to five days in advance of their testing date. These restrictions can make it hard for employees to get tested in practice, staff members told WNYC/Gothamist. 

Looking ahead, current City Council member and soon-to-be New York City Comptroller Brad Lander said the schools should require all staff and students to provide negative test results in order to return to classes on January 3rd. He said city-run testing sites should prioritize students and educators, and the schools should have enough rapid tests for everyone who is not able to visit an off-campus testing site before returning.

“We have the capacity, if we plan ahead,” Lander said in a statement. 

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said Monday the state will roll out resources for a “test -to-stay” program beginning in January, providing school districts with at-home testing kits. A test-to-stay protocol allows potentially exposed children to exit quarantine early if they test negative. 

When classes resume in the new year, a new mayor and schools chancellor will be in charge.. During an unrelated press conference, Mayor-elect Eric Adams was asked how he would ensure a smooth transition for families and educators but he declined to share his plans, saying he didn’t want “to add to the chaos by being in conflict with what [Mayor de Blasio is] doing.” 

However, Adams did signal change. “January 1st I’m mayor and on that day I’m going to roll out how I’m going to execute the plan. COVID is going to evolve by then,” he said. “This is a moving target that I must be prepared to execute a plan based on that day and I must be prepared to do that.”

In an email to members on Tuesday, United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew said the city needed to ramp up its response in schools immediately. 

“It’s become increasingly clear over the past 10 days that the COVID testing system in schools and the Situation Room are no longer functioning at an acceptable level,” he said. “The children and communities don’t care about the upcoming change in administrations. It’s up to the city to keep them safe from this virus now.” 

With reporting from Jake Offenhartz