A Manhattan charter school is temporarily switching to remote learning because 17 of its 54 staff members were out sick Tuesday, according to school officials.
Administrators at KIPP Washington Heights Middle School told families in an email Tuesday that the school would go virtual Wednesday through Friday “due to staff shortages associated with staff quarantining and testing positive for COVID,” principal Eric Cato wrote.
The school has a previously scheduled Thanksgiving break for all of next week, meaning in-person classes will resume Nov. 29.
A KIPP spokesperson said the Washington Heights school is the only one in the network to temporarily go remote over health-related staffing issues.
“With COVID-19, RSV and the flu on the rise and impacting numerous staff members at this location, we have made the necessary decision to temporarily go remote to ensure we can maintain a safe level of staffing, with no disruption to learning,” the spokesperson said.
Katrice Bryson, the parent of a seventh grader at the school, said she got several notices of teachers out with COVID in quick succession last week, and wasn’t surprised the school had to temporarily close its building.
Bryson said she had “no problems” with the school’s decision. “I am afraid as an immune-compromised person what that virus can do to me alone.”
Still, even a temporary return to remote learning felt like “deja vu all over again” more than two-and-a-half years into the pandemic, she said.
The KIPP school closure comes as some kids, parents, and educators are grappling with a citywide rise in respiratory illness, especially among children.
The number of student and staff COVID-19 cases reported in city public and charter schools so far this month is up slightly over last month, according to education department data tallied by the group PRESS NYC, though reported cases are still lower than in September, and far lower than during last year’s winter surge driven by the omicron variant.
Last week, a total of 2,925 cases were tallied, compared to 884 during the same week last November, according to the PRESS NYC tabulation. During the peak of last winter’s omicron surge, nearly 70,000 cases were tallied during one week in January.
But it’s not only COVID-19 keeping kids and teachers out of class across the city.
“This is the first winter since the pandemic began where you have not just COVID to worry about but other respiratory viruses that produce similar illness,” said Jay Varma, the director of the Cornell Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response and a former health adviser to Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The respiratory viruses have hit all age groups, but particularly children, Varma said. The likeliest explanation for the surge is that COVID-19 mitigation measures had the secondary effect of slowing the spread of the flu and RSV, keeping those viruses at bay for much of the pandemic and halting the short-term immunity that comes with being exposed, he added. Now that those mitigation measures are largely relaxed, the respiratory illnesses are coming back with a vengeance.
That can cause major headaches for both families and schools.
More parents reported missing work last month because of childcare problems than at any other point in the pandemic, according to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported by the Washington Post.
So far, citywide student and staff attendance haven’t budged much overall.
Student attendance clocked in at around 88% on both Monday and Tuesday of this week – similar to the yearly average, and an education department spokesperson said staff absences have remained stable since the start of the school year.
Several principals told Chalkbeat they’ve seen elevated student and staff absences in recent days, while others said they haven’t noticed any big differences.
Thanksgiving break for city public schools begins next Thursday.
Some city educators and parents are still heading cautiously into the winter months with the memories of last year’s omicron surge in their minds. That surge in cases drove record levels of student absences and upended school operations.
Varma said it’s still unclear what course the three colliding viruses will take in the coming weeks and months, but said that masking and ventilation are still the most effective tools for schools to help prevent spread.
“If you can make them [high-quality masks] widely available, you can encourage people to use them without mandating them,” he said. “That to me is the appropriate middle ground.”
Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at email@example.com.