Anxiety Grows as Schools Prepare to Open Amid Covid Surge; New Quarantine and Testing Policies

Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office.

By Carol Tannenhauser

The Omicron variant has led to the largest Covid surge in New York City since the start of the pandemic, with nearly 30,000 people a day testing positive over the past week and the positivity rate hovering around 20%.  Despite the numbers, on Monday, January 3rd, NYC public school parents must send their children back to school in person, as winter break ends.

For now, there is no remote-learning option, except a limited “home instruction” program for those with underlying conditions that parents can apply for. During the last school year, the threshold for closing the entire school system was a 3% positivity rate. Some parents who spoke to the Rag said they were confident the system will keep kids safe, even if their stress level has spiked.

“Overall, it is stressful,” said Courtney Gold, who has children at PS 87 and West End Secondary School. “But I’m of the mindset that my kids are vaccinated, and we do everything we can as parents to follow the rules and keep them safe. Last year was such a nightmare in our apartment with online learning, especially for my older child, who has proven this year that he absolutely needs to be in a classroom in order to be engaged in learning and happy about school.”

About 25% of the 5-to-11-year-olds returning to NYC public schools will be fully vaccinated, according to NYC data, while 73% of their older siblings (12 and up) will have gotten all their shots. Evidence is strong that most of the children who have gotten sick with Covid and been hospitalized across the country are unvaccinated. Even then, the number of kids who get severely ill is small compared to the larger population: 378 children were admitted to the hospital during the week of December 22-28, out of nearly 10,200 people of all ages, according to ABCNews. “And many doctors say the youngsters seem less sick than those who came in during the delta surge over the summer.”

Still, we all know that odds mean nothing if you’re on the wrong side of them. And Governor Hochul recently remarked that pediatric hospital admissions in the state were on the rise. “The number of children admitted to the hospital per week in New York City with COVID-19 went from 22 to 109 between December 5 and December 24,” ABC reported. “As of last week, 721 children in the U.S. had died of the disease, according to data reported to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The overall U.S. death toll is more than 800,000.”

NYC is not mandating Covid-19 vaccinations for schoolchildren — California is the only state to have done that so far, but has had to delay its implementation. Governor Kathy Hochul says she plans to get a mandate done by fall 2022, but it must pass through the State legislature first. For now, NYC is strongly urging that children get the vaccine.

Blue dots indicate schools that had at least one classroom go fully remote before the break. Orange dots show schools where classrooms had partial quarantines. Red dots show schools that went full-remote.

The City is also “strongly encouraging” parents to get their kids tested in advance of school to avoid the shutting down of classrooms and schools, as happened before the winter break (this map shows impacted schools). One impediment to that plan, however, has been the difficulty in getting tested. Some city testing sites were still reporting waits of more than two hours on Sunday — though parents can go to city testing sites and get free at-home rapid tests. Find a testing center here.

It’s part of a larger problem of getting an accurate sense of just how many kids are infected. A relatively small portion of parents have opted their kids into in-school testing, so the surveillance system is limited. The Department of Education is urging more parents to sign their kids up for testing here, and is vowing to double the number of people tested. “Every school will randomly test students who have submitted consent for testing each week, at a threshold of ten percent of students per school (Pre-K and Kindergarten are excluded),” the DOE announced.

The system leaves a lot to be desired, some parents said.

“My daughter is in 7th grade at Booker T Washington (MS54), and I am cautiously optimistic about her return to school on Monday but would have really preferred that the school system had implemented testing protocols that meet the moment,” Kimberly Watson told WSR. “Testing all staff and students before returning should have been considered a no brainer.”

Quarantining practices are changing too.

“To avoid frequent closures and disruption, the city will provide students with rapid at-home tests to take if someone in their classroom tests positive,” The New York Times explained. “If the students are not showing symptoms and test negative, they will be allowed to return the next day. They will then be given a second at-home test within five days of their exposure. Students or parents will self-report test results to schools.”

“Personally, I’m very glad that school will still be in person and that we’re going back on Monday,” said Sara Lind, who has a third and fifth graders at PS 166. “For my kids and so many others I know, being in person is critical for their educational and social-emotional development. We are all vaxxed (and I’m boosted) so we don’t feel nervous. I know several families who had COVID over the break but all had mild cases. That to me is a risk worth taking, especially when we’ve already had so many disruptions to their education. Not to mention, of course, disruptions for parents’ work.”

“Everyone is nervous and expects to get Covid if they haven’t already,” another mother of three children at PS 166 said. “But they also feel that school is important for kids (and parents) and shutting it down but nothing else, would send a strange message. Some have proposed 1-2 weeks remote, as people have traveled, etc., or mandating testing that first week back.  As usual with all this, no good/right answers for everyone.  I will def send my kids to school this week despite the worry.”

NEWS, SCHOOLS | 26 comments | permalink
    1. haha nope says:

      I am a NYC teacher. Students and teachers will not be safe.

      The Department of Ed for NYC have been hiding numbers and have not been testing enough students. It’s going to spread so fast and it’s going to be really ugly.

      NYC should be remote for two weeks.

      The best part is the people making these decisions are doing it over Zoom.

      • Leon says:

        Remote schooling was horrible. I have an older child and a younger child, and it was particularly tough for little kids.

        That being said, I agree that they should have made this week remote. Kids are going to be coming and going so there will be no continuity. Teachers will be coming and going, both for their own health and their children’s health.

        The new administration is not off to a good start.

      • Mike says:

        This is why we need more charter schools. Now.

      • Bebee says:

        I agree but for one month. I am a parent of 8 grader at Booker T Washington.

      • Susann says:

        “Teachers and students will not be safe.” ???
        Private and religious schools never shut down…I don’t recall any such issues or uptick in the virus among teachers and /or students in these settings, and this was prior to any vaccines which we now have.
        The only thing not safe is depriving in-person education for which there is no substitute.

        • Josh says:

          Actually, most private schools were remote last year. And those that weren’t were using a hybrid system as well. Most importantly, though, most private schools have class sizes of around 15 students per class. Most public school class sizes are 33 kids per class!

          • JY says:

            Most private schools also did weekly testing of ALL staff and students. NYC DOE only did 10% of students that were unvaxxed and with consent in place.

      • NYC DOE Teacher says:

        As another NYC DOE teacher, I totally agree that we will not be safe. Before the break, my class sizes were about 2/3 at best because of the number of students out with Covid. The DOE says students need to be 3 feet apart, based on CDC guidance, but they measure from belly-button to belly-button! Especially for middle school students and above, there is absolutely no difference between regular seating and this “3 foot social distancing.” Also, students are really bad about wearing masks. It is a constant fight with them. But my favorite was the email we just got from the Division of Human Resources which specifies that anyone who tested positive on or before December 26th is required to quarantine for a full 10 days, but if you test positive on or after December 27, you only have to quarantine for 5 days, as if it is a different virus! Oh, and lastly, while you can go to work after 5 days, and ride the subway to get there, after work you are required to quarantine until you go to work the next day. So, according to the CDC/DOE it is ok to give students and coworkers the virus, and those on public transportation, but not anyone in a grocery store.

        • Public School Parent says:

          NYC DOE Teacher,

          You say “but they measure from belly-button to belly-button!: What’s wrong with that? Isn’t the distance that matters one student’s nose/mouth to another’s which is effectively the same as belly-button to belly-button?

          • JY says:

            The 3-6ft distancing was for Delta. Omicron is a whole different beast. It’s extremely, extremely contagious. Positive cases in schools nearly tripled the week prior to break. The only reason there weren’t many more full school closures was bc principals couldn’t get through to the Situation Room or the cases were so backed up at the Situation Room that no one got back to the principals. Many schools had so many classroom closures that not even half of the teachers/students were on-site.

      • Covid Jones says:

        Are you vaccinated? Then you’re safe. The virus is endemic. It is NEVER GOING AWAY. There will NEVER be a point where you are “safe” — because your definition of “safe” is something you made up.

        • Josh says:

          Sadly, if it weren’t for false information, vaccine refusal, and mask refusal, we would have seen a very different trajectory of this pandemic. We had the ability to make the Spanish Flu really look like ancient history because of scientific advances that we didn’t have a century ago – namely the vaccine and masks with greater filtration ability. But humans are just too self-centered to see the greater good. And then this led to even those who were trying to end up with fatigue, both from the precautions themselves, and arguing with misinformed and misinformed. Sad for humanity, for those who needlessly suffered due to others’ selfishness, and those who perished for it.

        • NYC DOE Teacher says:

          My version of safe is where I am not put at significantly elevated risk due to policies that could be altered in a way to substantially diminish the risk instead. Many parents have asked for a remote option. All these “Red” state governors have argued that parents should be able to make the choice of whether their kids wear masks or not. Here we have a legitimate desire for parents to protect their children but are forced to send them in person to overcrowded schools. We have teachers who are not teaching at all because it is not safe for them to be in-person for health reasons, such as impaired immune systems. We have an answer to alleviate the overcrowding issue by offering the remote option to parents. There would be less of a teacher shortage because those teachers who are otherwise not teaching could still be teaching. And we could reduce the instances of spread in schools, and the community as a whole. Remote learning may not have worked for you or your family. As a teacher, I can tell you that remote learning was awful for many students, acceptable for many, but there were also students who absolutely thrived under remote learning and were more engaged than ever before. So why not have both? If you want to keep your children remote, you have that option. If you want them to be in person, you have that option too.

          • Dan says:

            For many kids the impact of falling behind in school is way more damaging than COVID. The pandemic is all a balancing act of risk and if it’s too risky for certain teachers, they shouldn’t go in but making blanket policies to go all remote will likely be more damaging than the impact of the omicron variant.

            • NYC DOE Teacher says:

              The “Blanket Policy” is a short term recommendation. Most are pushing for 2 weeks following the travel/holiday gatherings of students/families/teachers and the new variant. There is no recommendation for long term full remote. Long term remote OPTION yes, but not blanket.

            • Dan says:

              What happens to the kids during those two weeks at home? Are they going to sit tight and quarantine for two weeks? Less likely to catch COVID and bring it to school the following Monday? Classrooms aren’t superspreader locations and again, probably more beneficial to society to have kids in school.

        • NYYgirl says:

          Not endemic yet, sorry.

        • nemo paradise says:

          Ummm…well…yes.

          The battle between the “masks and boosters forever” phalange and the “This will be over in a month or two when everyone gets it” is joined.

    2. Westside neighbor says:

      I have no idea if this idea will be read or useful by any decision makers, but thought it
      might be worth mentioning. Over the holidays
      I was in conversation with a school secretary from South Jersey who said in her school they
      are still back to in-school learning but
      limiting the additional high exposure lunch time period, but having an early dismissal and sending the kinds home with their lunches–and even breakfast for next day.
      (This particular is a school designated for
      free lunch/ breakfast programs.)

      • anon says:

        You can say this shouldn’t be the case but the fact is school is childcare for many. WSR readers may be able to work from home if their kids will only be in school a half day but that is not the situation with the average public school family. Sending elementary school kids home before lunch will often mean they are without adult supervision.

    3. Bill Williams says:

      Covid is a non-issue for kids. Continued remote learning or masking in schools is NOT backed up by science. Neither is vaccinating children for COVID. Everyone should spend the 3 hours to listen to this podcast with Dr. Robert Malone, the mRNA vaccine inventor at https://open.spotify.com/episode/3SCsueX2bZdbEzRtKOCEyT

    4. SunflowerHopr says:

      If you’re in support of remote learning, please call Senator John C. Liu’s office 718-765-6675. He has put together a bill requiring a remote option when COVID cases hit a certain threshold.
      We, like many other families, think the city is in a tail spin. It took about 15 minutes for Eric Adams to show that he is the same broken record that De Blasio was.
      Schools are safe… We need workers to go back to the office because of the economy(great for my mayoralship!)… Get vaccinated…

      Also, the message “schools are so safe, we refuse to close them” and “your children are in so much danger that we’re contemplating forcing a vaccine mandate on them” is not consistent messaging.

      Btw, it should be clear to everyone
      by now that the vaccine CAN prevent serious hospitalization, but DOES NOT prevent transmission.
      The constant call for vaccine mandates is because our government officials have run out of bullets and a mandate is at least a “blank” that they can shoot off their mouth about.

      Imagine if you took that away, they might have to care and come up with a real, effective, custom-tailored, thoughtful solution.

      Btw, Hochul wants to decide that a vaxx mandate for kids should be required for fall 2022.
      We won’t even know what variant/situation we’ll be in by then.

      I support COVID vaccines for adults, but the parents should be making the decisions whether they need to be vaccinated.
      The bottom line is kids are still developing and the vaccine technology has not been tested by time the way other vaccinations have. Let’s just imagine if there is some long term effect on kids because they are still developing who will be responsible then? Not Eric Adams nor Kathy Hochul, I can’t tell you that.
      So please call Assemblyman DiPietro in support of his bill to refuse vaccine mandates at schools. After all, the administration has already told us kids don’t really get it, right?