“It’s going to be one of the most important moments since COVID began,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to reporters on Wednesday. “This day is a game changer.”
Others don’t share the mayor’s positivity. Some believe that the change will be negative.
September 13 marks the beginning of the 2021-22 school year. Just months after having operated with staggered schedules and a remote learning option during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mayor is declaring victory and wants students to travel back to class again.
But this time, he’s not offering a remote option. His reasoning? No positive COVID rates in city schools at the end of last year. De Blasio said that the end of the last school year proved that the combination of ventilation, cleaning and other measures worked.
“We took every conceivable health and safety measure from around the world and used them all, creating the gold standard,” said the mayor.
When the AmNews contacted the Department of Education and the city about the lack of a remote option, we were directed to the mayor’s comments at the end of August on the protocols that’ll be used to keep students, faculty, and other school employees safe.
The protocol, via a guideline handbook, includes vaccinations for all education employees, consistent school maintenance and options for immunocompromised public school students and mandatory vaccinations for anyone participating in high contact Public School Athletics League (PSAL) sports that require people being up close.
The city also sent the AmNews a link to a story about Catholic schools reopening with a remote option.
All of this comes on the heels on a recent report by the Washington Post, which noted that not only were there more than 250,000 COVID cases among children ending the week of Sept. 2, but more than 25% of all cases were kids and teenagers.
“At this time, it appears that severe illness due to COVID-19 is uncommon among children,” read the report. “However, there is an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children, including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects.
The 250,000 cases among children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, marked the highest number since the pandemic began.
There’s been comparisons between the city and charter institutions like Success Academy Charter Schools for years. They’re usually housed in the same buildings but operate under different circumstances. Success currently offers a remote learning option for its students. However, that option only lasts until early October. Why?
“We strongly believe in-person learning is the best environment for learning and for social-emotional development, but we knew that some families might need additional time before making the adjustment back to on-campus learning,” said Ann Powell, Success Academy Charter Schools’ chief public affairs officer, to the AmNews.
The closer to Sept. 13, the louder the cries for a remote option. This week, the Alliance for Quality Education joined the fray and called for the mayor and the city to stop and consider possible ramifications for this policy.
“We know that students learn best in the classroom,” said Jasmine Gripper, executive director, Alliance for Quality Education. “We are about to begin the third school year impacted by COVID-19, yet we still have not done everything possible to ensure learning can happen safely and successfully. With the rise of the Delta variant, we should be more cautious and proactive by doing what we can to curtail the spread of COVID-19, particularly when we are dealing with our children.”
And another group of students forgotten in this scenario? The disabled. The results for that group side with the mayor. According to a recent report by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapol, New York students with disabilities lost partial or full special education services because of school shutdowns and the shift to remote learning during the pandemic.
“Schools collaborate with service providers and a student’s family to create an individualized education program (IEP) to meet the student’s unique learning needs,” stated DiNapoli. “During the 2019-20 school year, more than 464,400 students in New York public schools, or 18% of the state’s total K-12 enrollment, had a disability.
Jazmine Cobham, organizer of Teens Take Charge, still didn’t understand the lack of a backup plan with the national increase in Delta variant cases no matter if the city is an outlier.
“The city should have a backup plan if the Delta variant proves to be more difficult to deal with,” Cobham told the AmNews. “Having a plan now can ensure a smoother transition into remote learning if schools are to be closed down again.” Cobham also advocated for a remote learning option, especially for students 12-years-old and below who cannot be vaccinated.
Tajh Sutton, president Community Education Council District 14 in Brooklyn, which covers Williamsburg and Greenpoint, told the AmNews that not having a remote option for students is irresponsible.
“The city should absolutely have a plan, and technically it’s not even ‘back up’ because students who have to quarantine will REQUIRE a remote option to keep up with their studies,” Sutton said. “It never should have been taken off the table. We’ve had several members contract COVID this year and that was before the more contagious Delta variant. I don’t know why the mayor is behaving as though young people can’t get sick.”
“I am encouraging families and students to stay home and to keep their children home,” Sutton said. “The reality is that the small amount of in-person learning that took place last year was only possible because 60-70% of NYC public school families chose to stay home thus creating safer conditions for in-person students and staff and less people to share limited resources such as masks, hand sanitizer and space with.”
However, if they are going to school, Cobhram had some advice to her peers on how to handle the situation.
“The pandemic has taken a toll on many students mental health,” she said. “There isn’t one guaranteed way for them to put themselves in the best mental shape for school. But what I will say is that students should always reach out to a trusted adult if they ever feel as though they need someone to talk to.
“Additionally, if they have any reason to believe that they might have been exposed to COVID. So that they can get treated a soon as possible.”