New York City school operations crumble under omicron’s weight

By Nic Querolo

NEW YORK — New York City school officials fought to keep schools open through a record-breaking surge of Omicron cases. Now, students, parents and teachers are grappling with the consequences.

Roughly 300,000 students missed class on average this week in the nation’s largest school district, which serves 1 million. For others, going to class in-person consisted of little actual learning as students were herded into auditoriums with teachers in short supply. Students stuck at home had no virtual option, and parents had to decide whether to send their children in or risk them falling further behind after years of disrupted, pandemic education.

The situation in New York stands in contrast to Chicago, where the teacher’s union has clashed with the city in a public face-off that closed schools for multiple days after winter break. Both illustrate the dire state of education in the U.S. that has reopened old debates and infuriated teachers, parents and officials.

New York Mayor Eric Adams has maintained that schools need to be open, and that warmth, food and supervision are invaluable for the city’s low-income or homeless students. “Schools play a role of safety and stability for our children,” Adams said Monday at Concourse Village in the Bronx.

Omicron has exploded citywide in schools. There were more than 8,000 student and 1,400 staff cases reported as of Friday evening, according to the city’s Department of Education. Attendance the first week back hovered around 70%. On Friday, when the city was covered in snow, less than half of the student body showed up.

With infections so high, schools have struggled to keep operations running smoothly. Teachers are reluctant to teach new material to vacant classrooms. When teachers call in sick, substitute teachers are in short supply. To cope, some schools moved teacher-less students to auditoriums or gyms.

“We don’t really learn anything anymore,” said Alan Sun, a sophomore at the Bronx High School of Science, one of the city’s specialized high schools. “There are COVID cases left and right, it’s just a mess.”

Sun looked at his phone and chatted with friends in the auditorium for two 40-minute periods Friday. He was moved to the gym when the auditorium filled up.

State health commissioner Mary Bassett has cautioned that pediatric hospitalizations are rising at a faster rate than for adults. Hospital admissions for COVID-19 among children under 18 increased more than seven-fold statewide from the week of Dec. 5 to the week ending Jan. 1, according to a report from the state’s Department of Health.

A group of elected officials is pressuring the mayor’s office for a temporary virtual option to allow for more widespread testing and vaccination. State assembly member Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas signed a letter with 19 other city and state legislators asking for a remote option until Jan 18.

“I’ve been hearing from countless parents and teachers,” said Gonzalez-Rojas, who kept her own 10-year-old son home from school in Jackson Heights Monday as case rates surged. When he returned to school Tuesday, there was a positive case in his classroom.

A shortage of substitute teachers contributed to the chaos. Candra McKenzie, a teacher at the City Polytechnic High School of Engineering, Architecture, and Technology in Brooklyn, had to forfeit her free period and take on additional classes to cover for sick colleagues.

“Hearing the mayor and chancellor say they’re going to open schools, but not having contingency plans like subs was really disheartening,” McKenzie said. “It’s very hard to do your job.”

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