Mayor Eric Adams sought to project confidence and a single-minded focus on keeping schools open as students returned to class from winter break Monday.
But with the omicron variant causing a record-breaking surge in COVID-19 cases, many educators and parents say they are anxious, bracing for another fraught and uncertain period.
Officials emphasize that, with precautions like vaccines, masks, and testing in place, schools can be relatively safe.
“We want to be extremely clear,” Adams said at Concourse Village Elementary School in the Bronx Monday — his third day as mayor. “The safest place for our children is in a school building, and we are going to keep our schools open.”
Adams warned of the emotional and academic toll of remote learning, including the “traumatic” lack of childcare for parents, the “terrible” challenges many students had getting online, and the mental health difficulties they experienced, including an increase in suicides.
He also emphasized unity with Governor Kathy Hochul — and continuity with former Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“Schools play a role of safety and stability for our children,” Adams said. “I know there are questions about staffing. I know there are questions about testing. But we’re going to change those question marks to an exclamation point. We’re staying open.”
To enhance precautions, the city launched new policies around testing and quarantines, but stopped short of requiring a negative test before students and staff re-enter buildings.
However, some parents and many educators said they were worried about omicron tearing through schools, especially after a spike in cases prompted classroom closures, staffing shortages and absences in the week leading up to Christmas.
“The city isn’t acknowledging how bad it was, and how many kids got sick at school,” said Brooklyn teacher Sarah Allen. She said the city should have required universal testing before kids went back into classrooms. Many private and charter schools – and cities like Boston and Washington, D.C. – have required a negative test before returning to school. Allen said she was choosing to keep her own children home.
Sally Beane, a Queens teacher, tested positive the day after Christmas — her second bout of COVID after first contracting it in March 2020. She said she was still sick and staying home on Monday.
“I am worried for my colleagues who had health accommodations last school year and will go in,” she said. “Their underlying conditions have not magically disappeared.”
Some administrators reported scrambling to staff classes. They said some students may have to work remotely in classrooms while instructors teach from home or take on additional classes.
By the end of Monday, attendance showed that only 67% of students were present; before the pandemic, typical attendance was around 91-92%.
In an email to members, United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew said he had advised the mayor to have schools go “remote temporarily until we could get a handle on the staffing challenges” at schools. Mulgrew said Adams declined: “He feels strongly that schools need to remain open,” he said.
Brooklyn parent Donna Baugham-Perry said she agreed with the decision to reopen schools immediately following the break, especially now that both her elementary-age daughters are vaccinated, and so is everyone in her family. “My children go to a school I believe is doing the best they can to … keep the children safe,” she said.
Baugham-Perry, who also serves on a community education council, said most of the families she represents include essential workers, don’t speak English as a first language, and rely on schools for nutrition. “Many of our children struggled as a result of remote learning.”
While New York City did not require a negative test to return to schools, officials did encourage people to get tested before entering buildings — although it’s not clear how many did so: some sites were closed over the holidays and rapid tests have been difficult to find.
At the same time, Hochul sent a million test kits to city schools last week, for a total of two million more tests. Schools are supposed to have these tests on hand to distribute to all teachers and students in a class anytime someone in that class tests positive. People who are exposed will need to take the test two times over the course of five days, and can keep coming back to school as long as the result is negative.
The city is also increasing the weekly surveillance testing in schools from 10 percent of unvaccinated students to 20 percent of both unvaccinated and vaccinated students, plus staff. The testing still does not include children in pre-k and kindergarten.
Many educators and epidemiologists had said the school system’s previous surveillance testing plan was inadequate, because it was limited to unvaccinated people at time when omicron is breaking through inoculations and requires participants to proactively opt-in, which shrinks the pool. At some schools, parents have reported that the same handful of students with permission slips have been tested over and over again. While the new testing regime includes vaccinated people, it still requires signed consent, which epidemiologists say does not give a full picture.
NEW QUARANTINE POLICY
Following winter break, the school system also launched new quarantine policies.
Students in kindergarten through 12th grade who test positive for Covid still have to report the result to the school and stay home for 10 days. But close contacts who have no symptoms and test negative no longer have to isolate. For students in 3-K and Pre-K, the quarantine policy will remain the same – any student who was in close proximity to a positive case will still have to quarantine for 10 days.
Staff who test positive must also isolate, but those who are fully vaccinated can actually return on day six if they haven’t had a fever for several days, have no runny nose and no more than a minimal cough. That’s in line with the updated CDC guidance for essential workers.
There's still a possibility of school-wide closures if there appears to be an outbreak, and the city did close more schools because of spread in the week leading up to Christmas than in the months before.
But administrators warn staffing shortages may become the leading trigger for closures.
“We’re monitoring all the staffing issues,” said new Schools Chancellor David Banks. “All indications are that we’re in a pretty good place right now, and we’ll make any adjustments that are necessary.”