Health

New Yorkers reflect on a stressful week back at school amid omicron wave

Schools in
the nation’s largest district opened as planned Monday, amid an extraordinary
rise in cases fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant, which has again
turned New York into a coronavirus epicentre. A new testing system went into
effect this week, with rapid tests available in every school. Attendance
hovered around 70 percent throughout the week, though it fell to 44 percent
Friday, an extremely low percentage that coincided with the first snowstorm of
the winter.

In two dozen
interviews with parents, teachers and students this week, New Yorkers were
divided over whether schools should currently be open for in-person learning,
but most echoed a familiar feeling of unease.

Matt Baker,
a high school math teacher at Brooklyn Latin School, which straddles
Williamsburg and Bushwick, said the week had been chaotic. “We’re trying to
help kids that aren’t here, but also the kids that are here,” he said. “It’s
not clear how long they’re going to be out, we’re just trying to get by.”

“I’m happy
that schools are open in general,” Baker said. “I’m just not convinced that
they should have opened this week.”

Mayor Eric
Adams, who took office just two days before schools reopened after the winter
break, has been adamant that the system will remain open despite the surge in
virus cases and hospitalizations.

New York has
been more aggressive than many other large cities in keeping its schools open.
That policy has been supported by many public health experts and parents whose
children struggled during virtual schooling, although some parents say they
would prefer a longer-term remote learning option.

The
reopening had so far been largely successful, as in-school virus transmission
was extremely low in the year or so from when schools began to reopen to when
omicron hit. But the contagiousness of the variant presents a unique challenge,
and keeping schools safe — while reassuring families and educators — has
emerged as the first major test of leadership for the new mayor.

“The safest
place for children is in a school building,” Adams said during a television
interview Thursday. “There’s no getting around that. That’s the science, that’s
the fact. That is not spreading fear.”

Speaking at
a news conference Friday, the mayor said he wanted to provide parents with
clarity that schools would be open and stay open, after a string of delays and
changes to the school reopening plan.

He and
others have pointed to all the ways in which conditions are different than they
were earlier in the pandemic.

New York’s
educators were given access to vaccines nearly a full year ago, before some
immunocompromised people and other vulnerable groups. All adults working in
city buildings are required to be vaccinated. Nearly all city schoolchildren
are eligible for vaccines, although over half have not received a shot.

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Testing,
though still limited, is more widely available than during previous surges. And
though omicron is more contagious than previous variants and more likely to
spur breakthrough infections, some evidence suggests that it causes milder
illness than previous variants, especially in vaccinated people.

There is
also much less political friction with the city’s teachers union than there was
earlier in the pandemic; Adams and Michael Mulgrew, president of the United
Federation of Teachers, have said they are working together closely to keep
schools open.

Solange
Farina sent her daughter, a high school freshman, back to school in the Chelsea
neighborhood of Manhattan this week. Farina, who lives in Astoria, Queens, said
she didn’t feel nearly as frightened as she did when schools first shut down in
the spring of 2020. “But I definitely don’t feel hopeful like I did last June,
before delta,” she said.

“I’m kind of
going day by day,” she said. “It’s just stressful living in this moment.”

Attendance
data from this past week demonstrated the moment’s challenges. About one-third
of parents kept their children at home.

Interviews
with parents around the city highlighted the divide that exists among them.

Standing
outside Public School 112 in East Harlem this week, Erica Alvarez said
supervising remote learning for her 7-year-old son earlier in the pandemic was
“one of the hardest periods” of her life.

This week,
she said: “So far, everything is all right. They have made me feel
comfortable.”

But a few
blocks away at Public School 155, Yamzi Aquino was waiting to pick up his
8-year-old son. He was nervous about his child being back in classrooms.

“I’d rather
him be healthy and happy and wait,” Aquino said. “You’re risking too much.”

Case numbers
in schools have been significantly higher in the last three weeks than at any
other moment of the pandemic. The city’s virus-tracing system for schools,
known as the situation room, reported more than 13,000 positive cases among
staff and students Thursday.

Still, city
officials cautioned that a majority of those cases were reported during the
holiday break, when children were not in school, and that they were part of an
enormous backlog in case reporting. The city also started tabulating the
results of rapid at-home tests, not only laboratory-confirmed PCR tests, for
the first time this week.

In an effort
to make families and educators more comfortable about returning to classrooms,
the city ramped up its school testing protocol in the final week of former
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure.

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Among the
changes: 1.5 million rapid at-home tests have been distributed to schools and
entire classrooms no longer have to quarantine when someone tests positive. And
students and staff members can return after an exposure as long as they receive
two negative at-home test results over five days.

Elana
Rabinowitz, a middle-school teacher in the Fort Greene neighborhood of
Brooklyn, said she was relieved to find testing kits and a KN95 mask waiting
for her when she returned to her school building this week. She was assured
that there would be enough of a supply to test herself twice a week.

“That gave
me some faith that someone was in charge,” she said.

But
Rabinowitz said the staff shortages that her school and many others were
experiencing because of positive cases were unsustainable. On Friday, she said,
about half of the staff was absent, and there were just a handful of students
in most classrooms.

“As usual we
are wearing all the various hats to keep the school running. In a beautiful
way, people have come together,” she said. “However, it’s like taking blood
from a stone. All that we have been through and all that we are continuing to
work with, we’re already exhausted.”

Despite
staffing issues in many schools, the city kept all but one of its 1,600 schools
open this week. The principal of one school, Public School 58 in Brooklyn, told
parents Sunday night that she would close the school the next day, without
permission from the Department of Education. It was back open by Tuesday.

The city
does not yet have data on employee attendance this week. During a news
conference Friday, David C Banks, the schools chancellor, said the number of
staff members in school had been “lower than we wanted to see.” He added that
he expected both student and staff attendance to increase next week.

But the fact
that schools have been open does not mean they are operating normally.

Pilar
Lu-Heda, 17, a high school senior who lives in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and
who attends school in Manhattan, said her first day back was “definitely a
little bit eerie” because so many students had not returned.

“Usually it
feels like there’s a lot of voices, a lot of people,” she said. “But today
there was a lot of awkward silence because everyone could feel there was a lack
of students.”

Some of
Lu-Heda’s teachers have even held off on covering parts of their lessons, she
said, choosing to save them for when more students return. But her teachers
don’t always seem to know when that will be, she said.

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Lu-Heda said
that three of her close friends were recovering from the virus after
contracting it over the holidays, and that she would feel safer switching to
remote learning until case levels began to drop.

Adams and de
Blasio said last week that New Yorkers should be reassured by the fact that the
city would double the size of its PCR surveillance testing program in schools,
randomly testing 20 percent of consenting students in each school weekly
instead of 10. But that announcement now appears more aspirational than
factual.

This week,
parents and educators said they discovered that the city was actually determining
the number of students tested in a given school based on the percentage of
unvaccinated students in that school — but with an expanded testing pool that
included vaccinated and unvaccinated children.

That means
that schools with high vaccination rates are not seeing the significant
increases in surveillance testing that parents and educators expected.

Emily, a
teacher in Manhattan who asked that her last name not be used since she was not
authorized to speak publicly, said only eight students in her school of more
than 300 mostly vaccinated students were tested this week — the same number as
the week before break. Her experience was echoed in interviews with parents and
teachers across the city.

About
two-thirds of families have not opted to include their children in the testing
pool, prompting calls for Adams to automatically enroll all families in the
program and give them the choice to opt out. Children in the city’s
prekindergarten and early childhood classrooms are not eligible for vaccines or
testing, which has frustrated many parents of young children.

Despite
changing policies, some teachers said they were grateful to be back in
classrooms.

Nathalie
Diaz, a third grade teacher in the South Bronx, said only one student, who had
tested positive for the virus, was missing from her class this week. Her school
had been closed for a few days before the break because of a spike in cases.
She said parents and children seemed relieved to be back in classrooms.

On
Wednesday, Diaz’s class worked on a group project about the Constitution.
Watching the students reading off each other’s pages, she thought about how
much more challenging the exercise would be if done remotely.

“It is
wonderful to be back,” Diaz said. “I love that now we can kind of get back to
some sort of normalcy, considering everything still going on.”

© 2022 The
New York Times Company

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