By Jacob Rose
Due to concerns about the Delta variant and a widely unvaccinated youth population, a growing number of parents and public officials are calling for a remote learning option in New York City public schools this fall.
Mayor de Blasio has so far stuck to his plan to reopen schools for fully in-person learning on September 13th. But there is a chorus of calls demanding that the city provide a remote option for families feeling uncertain about safety in schools.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer on August 6th sent a letter to the Department of Education requesting “a remote option until the vaccination effort has had an impact on a greater scale.” Brewer cited low vaccination rates among children and in northern Manhattan especially. A majority of City Council Members now support a remote option, including District 6 Council Member Helen Rosenthal.
Council Member Mark Treyger, who represents the 47th district in Brooklyn and has been especially vocal on this issue, has proposed a remote option overseen centrally, rather than by individual schools. As of a week ago, a small majority of the 100 biggest school districts nationwide were offering a fully remote option.
Alex Barnett, a father with a child going into fifth grade in an Upper West Side public school, is among those who support a remote option and says he would choose it for his child. He says that with the Delta variant spreading and schools figuring to be increasingly crowded, schools might be less safe this year than last. He sees no reason not to give families the option to go remote.
“I’m not here telling other people how to live their lives,” he said. “I’m just saying COVID is a real safety risk, particularly for children under 12 [who aren’t eligible for a vaccine]. Why wouldn’t you in an abundance of caution make a remote option available?”
Another contingent of parents believe that the benefits of returning all students to in-person learning outweigh any health risks. Stephanie Kokinos has rising first and third graders and Natalya Murakhver has rising second and sixth graders in Upper West Side public schools.
“We need to do everything we can to find ways to keep children safe and healthy and in school for social-emotional and cognitive development,” Murakhver said.
Kokinos and Murakhver were leaders of a group which last year sued Mayor de Blasio and DOE Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter demanding a return to fully in-person learning.
The CDC has prioritized a return to in-person learning, pointing to its benefits for children. Transmission of COVID at city schools last year was rare. But the more-transmissible Delta variant is a wildcard now. In some areas of the country, hospitals are admitting more children than they did earlier in the pandemic, but there’s debate over whether that’s because Delta is more severe in children or simply leading to more overall cases.
Elizabeth Sofro, a mother of a rising third grader in an Upper West Side public school, supports a remote option for children who haven’t been offered the vaccine and would choose the option for her child. She says that conversations with her daughter’s pediatrician and several other doctors underscored the threat that the Delta variant poses to children.
“Until we can all be given the opportunity to vaccinate ourselves, those who cannot [get vaccinated] do not need to be slammed into a room of 32 kids,” she said.
Although everyone over 12 is vaccine-eligible, the remote option proposed by Brewer and the City Council would figure to be used by a mix of children under the age 12 as well as teenagers. According to NYC data, which keeps track of vaccination rates by age group and race/ethnicity, 100% of Asian/NHPI teenagers, 78% of white teenagers and 66% of Hispanic/Latino teenagers in Manhattan aged 13-17 have gotten at least one dose. Among Black teens in the borough, that number drops to 35%.
It’s unknown just how many families citywide would opt to go remote. In Success Academy charter schools, which educate about 23,000 students K-12 in the city, about 10% of students chose to go remote through October 8.