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An early test for Eric Adams: solving low attendance and a school staffing crunch

An adult approaches an elementary school with two children in winter coats.

Students arrive at Concourse Village Elementary School in the Bronx on Monday as NYC reopens schools after winter break amid a COVID surge.

Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

As students and educators streamed back into classrooms Monday, New York City’s newly minted Mayor Eric Adams and schools Chancellor David Banks vowed to keep them there even as the region confronts a record-breaking surge of coronavirus cases. 

But if Adams’ first day overseeing the nation’s largest school system is any indication, fulfilling that goal will be an early test of the new administration.

With many educators positive for COVID, some campuses on Monday struggled to field enough staff. At least one Brooklyn high school sent students to the auditorium. None of the 15 requests a Queens school made for substitute teachers were fulfilled, its principal said. And, in an extreme case, a Brooklyn elementary school leader shuttered the campus entirely even without official approval to do so. (Officials said they are considering disciplinary action regarding P.S. 58’s decision to go remote.)

At other schools, staffing issues did not appear to be an immediate issue — in some cases because staff absences were balanced by higher-than-usual absenteeism among students. Across the system, about 33% of students were absent on Monday, city data show

“I have kids who are genuinely worried about bringing COVID back to their families,” said Anna Nelson, an assistant principal at Bronx Latin, a middle and high school. “Usually when you come back from break it’s: ‘I’m so happy to see you,’ and it’s joyful. It was not joyful today.”

Across the system, about 33% of students were absent on Monday, city data show.

Over half of the school’s students were absent Monday. A flurry of positive coronavirus cases among workers forced the school to reassign co-teachers from classes that are supposed to be staffed by two educators. And a shortage of cafeteria workers meant that students were not offered breakfast this morning, Nelson said.

It’s difficult to know how pervasive staffing issues were the day after winter break or the extent to which they will disrupt classrooms in the coming weeks, though infections have upended other sectors, including the transportation system. Banks said “all indications are that we’re in a pretty good place right now” regarding staffing, and he was prepared to deploy administrators from central offices, if necessary. The education department did not say how many educators were out.

A new “COVID command center” will help address any staffing shortages, Banks promised. 

“We’ll be prepared to make whatever adjustments are needed,” he added. 

New quarantine policies

Facing an avalanche of cases, new quarantine policies took effect Monday to help protect schools against the virus and reduce the number of missed days. The city has increased its random testing protocol to include 20% of vaccinated and unvaccinated students each week instead of 10% of unvaccinated students. Still, the program only tests students who have consented, and roughly 64% of the city’s nearly 1 million students have not done so.

The city is also instituting a “test-to-stay” policy, which allows classmates of someone who tests positive to remain in school instead of issuing wider quarantine orders, as long as they test negative twice over several days and remain symptom-free. The city has distributed 2.1 million at-home tests for the program so far, officials said. School staff should also be given two at-home tests per week in January even if they’re not feeling sick. 

Some families said the city’s mitigation measures made them feel safe returning to campus.

“I felt very comfortable and confident that the school has already proven that they are able to manage the situation to the best of their ability so far,” said Joy Smith-Jones, a Bronx mother, who sent her ninth-grade daughter back to Manhattan’s Central Park East High School after the holiday break.

The family received an email from their daughter’s principal on Saturday reiterating the school’s safety rules, and that he would ensure students would not be without teachers if staffing issues arise. The message made the family feel more comfortable returning, Smith-Jones said, noting that the principal has been “very open and transparent” with parents throughout the school year.

But Smith-Jones may reconsider if cases spike at her daughter’s school, where all of her daughter’s teachers showed up on Monday, but many peers were missing. One class had just 13 students, about half of the usual number, she said.  

Though the family is vaccinated, her husband was hospitalized with COVID from March to June 2020 and still suffers from the after-effects, Smith-Jones said. She doesn’t want him to get reinfected. While their daughter wants to be in school, she would stay home for the sake of her family— though her mom hopes it does not come to that. 

The family uses a testing van near their home each week separate from the education department’s program in part to get “assurance” that her daughter is free of the virus, Smith-Jones said.

Learning disruptions

Keeping school buildings open is essential for low-income families who make up a majority of the system, not only because of the challenges with remote instruction, but also because schools are essential in providing meals and other services, Adams said Monday, echoing his predecessor Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Multiple school leaders said they agreed with the commitment to keeping school buildings open, but emphasized that it may be difficult to provide an undisrupted learning environment with such a high level of infections. 

At Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn, one teacher estimated about 50 staffers were out. If a teacher was absent, students were greeted with a message posted on the classroom door to head to the auditorium, where administrators and some substitutes stood watch.  

The teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, said his students relayed that they had no computers to access school work.

“It basically amounted to sitting around doing nothing in that time. And I had a kid who had three classes like that,” the teacher said. 

The teacher spent his free period scrambling to post work online for the more than half of students whom he said were absent Monday.

“We can say schools are open,” he said. “But what’s going on today, there’s not teaching and learning going on anywhere near what you could feel good about as a teacher and educator.” 

In the meantime, students who are quarantining (or opting to stay home out of concern about rising cases) may also have uneven experiences — or little instruction at all, educators said. Some teachers are trying to broadcast their lessons on Zoom for those who are at home. Others are simply posting assignments online for students to complete on their own time. Students are supposed to attend school in person unless they’re required to isolate.

At John Bowne High School in Flushing, Queens, nearly 40 out of roughly 200 teachers were out on Monday, according to a teacher there, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisal. About 45% of the school’s more than 3,000 students were out, city data show.

“This is a tremendous burden on staff. We have to basically teach asynchronously as well as synchronously,” the teacher said.

Although many charter schools are returning to in-person instruction, Harlem Link Charter school gave families the option to keep their children home. Many did.

Walking the building on Monday, co-founder and co-executive director Steve Evangelista said each classroom had between three to 10 students. Staff were in the building, but whether in school or at home, students logged into remote classes. Testing has been ramped up so that everyone coming to the campus is tested daily. 

On the first day back, 17 students and staff tested positive for COVID.

Evangelista said that remote instruction, while not ideal, allows the school to make sure students continue learning while also acknowledging that many families remain fearful of the virus.

“Safety begins with trust,” he said. “That sense of well-being matters more than anything else.”

The Central Harlem school, which keeps a sharp focus on attendance, noticed that calls home about missed days became more frequent in December. Conversations with families revealed that many were getting sick, were isolating after coming into contact with others who had tested positive for the virus, or were simply hunkering down out of health concerns as cases soared.

So school leaders decided to offer remote instruction the week before winter break, and again after classes resumed in January.

The school plans to continue offering virtual classes at least through this week.

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