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Amid omicron surge, NYC schools prepare to reopen after winter break

THURSDAY, APRIL 8, 2021- Brooklyn, New York: Brooklyn High School for Excellence and Equity. CREDIT: Gabriela Bhaskar for Chalkbeat

An empty hallway at a Brooklyn high school. NYC schools reopen after winter break on Jan. 3 amid surging coronavirus cases.

Gabriela Bhaskar for Chalkbeat

New York City teachers and students prepared to return from winter break Monday to schools with ramped up testing and other measures designed to contain the spread of the surging omicron variant.

The reopening of the country’s largest school district was greeted with apprehension among some parents and teachers unnerved by a surge in cases across the state

The return to school could be complicated. Staffing shortages might pose problems as educators test positive or stay home caring for relatives with COVID. Dropping temperatures and the season’s first snowstorm could force lunch time indoors and classroom windows to close, raising even more concerns about ventilation and transmission.

The city’s new mayor, Eric Adams, sought to assuage the fears of parents during an interview Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “I say to them, fear not sending them back,” said Adams, who was sworn in on Jan. 1. “The number of transmissions is low. Your children are in a safe space to learn and continue to thrive.”

Determined to avoid a systemwide closure and return to remote learning, Adams and other officials vowed last week to double the number of students and staff tested for COVID in schools. In a reversal from this year’s previous protocols, vaccinated students will be included in the testing pool. 

The state also said it would send 2 million at-home tests to city schools in an effort to cut down on unnecessary quarantines. Under the latest city rules, asymptomatic students with a positive classmate can return to the classroom with a negative test result.

Also in a letter to parents last week, the education department urged but did not require families to get students tested for COVID before returning to classes, though long lines and a lag in result times plagued many testing sites. Additionally, many stores have run out of at-home testing kits. The education department also changed its daily health screener in response to the surge.

Adams and other officials are continuing to encourage families to get their children over 5 vaccinated. Many public health officials have said that omicron appears to be milder among individuals who have gotten their shots.

Still, the measures did little to alleviate the fears of some teachers and families unnerved by record numbers of children hospitalized with COVID. Members of the MORE-UFT caucus planned to wear black this week to protest what they are calling an unsafe reopening.

In a letter to members Sunday, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said the union called on Adams to revert to remote learning “temporarily until we could get a handle on the staffing challenges that each school is about to face as we return. However, he feels strongly that schools need to remain open.”

Still, Adams seemed poised to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Bill de Blasio, who prioritized keeping the school system open over the last year even as individual classrooms shut down.

Ahead of the winter break, schools experienced a spike in cases, with at least 11 schools closing that week and others suffering from staffing shortages.  The education department recently reached out to retired teachers stating they anticipated a need for substitutes after the break and offering an additional $50 per day if they worked at least five days in January, according to a letter shared with Chalkbeat.

An education department spokeswoman said there were no schools slated to be closed Monday due to positive cases, but at least one school in Brooklyn told families Sunday night they would be closed due to staffing shortages. 

Though P.S. 58 had not yet gotten official approval for its “emergency operational closure” request, it told families that several reasons forced its decision to go remote.

“One big factor is that many of our staff members have tested positive for Covid, or are experiencing symptoms and awaiting test results,” said an email from the school’s principal to families. “Also, staff members are home caring for their Covid positive family members.”

School districts around the country are taking different approaches to the rise in infections.  Districts such as Detroit and Newark chose to delay their returns to in-person learning, while many districts chose to reopen with ramped up testing and other altered protocols.

Carrie Melago contributed.

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