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.
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.”