“The disruption of a classroom closing three days after school began due to COVID exposure is annoying,” said Tamika Hall, a parent of three school-aged children. “Not only that, the DOE policy of still sending siblings of exposed children to school makes zero sense. They have no policy in place for cross-contamination and that is a HUGE misstep when trying to control the spread.
“Parents have to work.”
This week, critics’ and parents’ worst fears came true when classrooms were closed along with one entire school because of suspected or confirmed positive COVID tests.
According to the Department of Education statistics, as of Tuesday evening, there were 1,487 confirmed cumulative positive COVID cases between Sept. 13 and Sept. 21. Of those, 985 were students. There were 170 students recorded on Sept. 21 alone.
One school, P.S. 79 in East Harlem had to close completely after 19 positive COVID tests. According to Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, most of the positive tests could be traced back pre-school orientation.
So, what does New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio think about this? Stay the course.
“There’s not a perfect algorithm or chart,” the mayor said. “It really depends on the individual circumstances. Remember those twin imperatives that I feel strongly, President Biden has enunciated, the CDC has enunciated, health and safety first and maximum school attendance. So, we’re always trying to figure out where that balance point is, and it has to be done looking at all the facts. Whether there’s a way to keep a certain number of people in school while keeping them safe or whether a fuller closure is needed.”
There is some good news. New York State Gov. Kathy Hochul released numbers that showed that 82.8% of New Yorkers 18 and above have at least one dose of the vaccination and 74.3% of all adults have been fully vaccinated.
In New York City, according to City Hall, 68.9% of residents, of all ages, got at least one dose of the vaccination. Sixty-two percent of NYC residents are fully vaccinated.
But how much will that mean with the Delta variant, which is a more transmissible form of the coronavirus, making up 99% of all positive COVID tests (as of Sept. 4)?
“The criteria that we use to determine what we call widespread transmission in a school, is what determines when that high threshold is met for school closure,” stated City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi during a news conference this week. “And that’s evidence of multiple sources of infection, in multiple spaces or cohorts within a school. When we’re finding preliminary evidence of this, an investigation occurs by our disease detectives. And based on their determination, if there is a reasonably high likelihood that ongoing transmission is occurring within the school, as opposed to you know, in a home setting or the community setting, that’s what warrants the school closure.”
“We are you making individual decisions, always with the best interest of the children in mind,” added Mitchell Katz, president and CEO of NYC Health + Hospitals. “We look at the number of cases. We look at what the circumstances were in terms of whether or not there was mask wearing, whether or not the children were able to stay apart. And based on that, we make a decision as to what to do with the school.”
As of Sept. 27, unvaccinated and masked students, who follow all social distancing guidelines, won’t have to quarantine even if they were in close contact with someone who tested positive and all COVID testing would move from bi-weekly to weekly (something that the United Federation of Teachers called for). However, only 10% of all unvaccinated students will submit to weekly testing at the behest of their parents.
Tajh Sutton, president of Community Education Council District 14 and member of Black Lives Matter at School NY, said that the mayor’s desire to make things normal again is clouding his judgment. That his desire for a big score before he leaves office is superseding doing the right thing.
“Our mayor refused to listen to community expertise and instead made it his mission to reopen the largest school system in the country, not because he cares about our children’s emotional health or academic wellbeing, but because he hopes to go out with a bang,” said Sutton. “A mayor who truly believed in-person education was most beneficial for all children would have put the measures in place to make it sustainable.”
Because of this new step back for the mayor, the Department of Education has stepped in to be an additional voice challenging certain rumors and beliefs.
A parent posted on Twitter that the city hadn’t yet tested all positive cases in some classrooms. DOE officials said that the accusations were false. They told the AmNews that most positive cases are investigated and closed out the same day with a small number reported in afterhours. Those cases would close out the next morning.
Testing is provided through the City’s Test and Trace Corps.
“The health and safety of our school communities is our top priority, and we do not hesitate to intervene to stop the spread,” said DOE spokesperson Nathaniel Snyder. “We follow stringent guidance from health experts to prevent any further transmission by quarantining close contacts, closing classrooms, and, if necessary, entire buildings. Learning continues during quarantine, and we ensure the school has the resources necessary to come back and have a successful school year.”
Parent Amanda Reisman said, however, that she was told by an employee that there were some difficulties with the process. That it was slow and tedious because of the number of tests being performed.
“You know, the contact tracer who I spoke to? He said that they’ve just been overwhelmed since the start of school,” Reisman stated. When asked if she thought the city should have seen this coming she said, “Absolutely. Absolutely.”
Last fall, the city premiered the “Situation Room” looking to alert schools and the community at-large to positive COVID tests as soon as possible.
Some parents believe that this could be avoided if there was a remote option for their children. According to a poll from The Education Trust-New York, 79% of all parents in New York City said they would choose a remote option if one were available. Across the state 72% of Black parents said they would use the remote option followed by 69% of Latinx parents and 55% of white parents. This despite 89% of parents in the state agreeing that, in a perfect world, in-school learning is better for their children.
Eighty-three percent of parents polled in the state supported precautions, such as mask mandates, in schools.
“In this unprecedented moment, we can and must do better for New York families, and that starts with listening to the people who know their children best—parents,” said Dia Bryant, executive director of The Education Trust–New York, in a statement. “Our district leaders must respect the wishes of parents and offer families the specific supports they need to ensure that their children can learn, grow, and thrive—now and in the future.”
Reisman she felt ignored by the DOE and the city in general when calling for requests that she felt couldn’t be answered on the city’s website.
“I am pretty angry about how my daughters’ school never responded to emails about quarantine when we got back from the UK and then said—send her in after I tested her—no one—absolutely no one—was in charge of screening students when they returned from summer,” said Reisman in a text message to the AmNews. “I really don’t understand how or why the DOE didn’t require Covid testing to return to school—and I’m not talking about the ridiculous health screening app, but each student should have been screened with a PCR before returning to school.”
PCR stands for polymerase chain reaction. It’s a lab technique used to detect the genetic material from specific organisms, like a virus. It’s also known as a molecular test. PCR tests, as opposed to antibody tests, use swabs and not blood samples to test for COVID-19.
Because of recent developments the United Federation of Teachers sent to de Blasio, Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter and First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan are calling for the return of weekly testing (which the city eventually obliged to).
“Given that the virus is not yet under control and that most kids still cannot get vaccinated, it was irresponsible for city hall and the DOE to not have a remote learning option in place,” said Liu, in a statement responding to the EdTrust-NY poll. “In-person instruction is best, but only when parents feel secure about the health and safety of their children.”
P.S. 79’s schooling will continue starting next week with remote learning. According to Brewer, the school will provide “grab-and-go” lunches daily or direct them to a school that’s closer to home with a parent’s recommendation.
New York City Council Member and Education Committee Chair Mark Treyger didn’t respond to requests for comment.