Jessica Phillips Lorenz’s fifth-grade daughter is a pediatric-cancer survivor and is immunocompromised. She’s also too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19. So when she walked into a Brooklyn classroom for the first time in 18 months on Monday, Lorenz was naturally concerned for her daughter’s health. Despite the risk that all kids are facing from the ongoing pandemic, Lorenz and her husband felt some relief on the first day that New York City public-school students returned to school.
“I did not want my children to be home again. I could not do it again,” Lorenz said. “It was not good for my family. It was not good for me as a person.”
When schools first sent children home at the start of the pandemic, Lorenz, a writer and early-childhood educator, divided her two-bedroom apartment to allow her daughter and younger son to learn remotely. Her two kids worked out of the same place while operating on two different schedules.
“It was nuts. It was not fun really for anybody. And I think our teachers were extraordinary and I think my children rose to the occasion and we all did our best. But even at its best, it was not ideal, far from ideal,” Lorenz said. She continued, “I will say, English is our first language, we had computers, we were not a wealthy family, but we had the resources to make this work. I cannot imagine how impossible it would’ve been for other families who didn’t have those things already in play.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced earlier this year that public schools would not have a remote option for students come the fall, putting an end to what was originally thought of as a short-term measure to curb the spread of the virus. Instead, most children spent the majority of the past academic year virtually trapped at home, forcing their parents to balance child care and their jobs, often at the same time as they proctored kids’ Zoom school. The pandemic is not over thanks to the Delta variant, but children filing into classrooms to join their peers and teachers feels like a major milestone in the city’s return to normalcy. “We just felt that she’s gotta get back with her peers and if her doctors say that she can go, we’re going to do it,” Lorenz said.
Jeanne Solomon of Brooklyn had only one reaction when she heard that students would be headed back to the classroom: “Thank goodness.”
Solomon is a lawyer and often worked from home throughout the pandemic as her son, now a high-school junior, had to attend classes remotely. Both of them often experienced technological difficulties, having trouble with connectivity and logging in. Solomon recalled one time when she traveled to her midtown office and worked all night because the internet went out at their home, an option her son didn’t have. Now, fortunately, he’s back in school in Manhattan.
“It was just really bad for his mental health. He’s pretty resilient, but this is better. So much better going in person now,” Solomon said.
David Hong, who teaches English to high-school students in Queens, said initially he was anxious about the risk of catching the virus from teaching in person. “I didn’t really know who was vaccinated or not. The numbers I know are not like 100 percent or even close to 100 percent for teachers. I think it was in the 60s or something, and I’m sure in my school it was similar,” Hong said. “I had definitely some co-teachers and teachers I tended to work around who were not vaccinated, in some ways, kind of adamantly not vaccinated.”
Back in August, de Blasio mandated that all Department of Education employees receive at least one dose of the COVID vaccine by September 27.
Once he finally returned, Hong said that it felt good to be back and that almost all of his students feel the same way. “In the past few days, it’s nice to just have a lot of small, little, normal organic interactions with kids. There’s so many kids that, during the pandemic, they were just a blank screen, you know? They just turned off their camera and their sound. They’re just a little black profile icon,” Hong said. “And all those students are students that are just a hundred times easier to reach in person. Just walk up to them and oftentimes you just show them a little bit of personal recognition and they open up really easily.”
Jake Jacobs, an art teacher in the Bronx, already has concerns about what he’s seeing in his school, echoing the fears that many had over the return to class as COVID cases have risen, in the city and nationally.
“I set up my classroom, we did all this work welcoming kids back and making them feel warm and fuzzy. And we just got our first case in school today,” Jacobs said on Wednesday. “We quarantined a whole class. Their parents are all getting notified right now. They’re gonna be out of school for ten days and we have to go online and provide asynchronous remote learning for them over those days while we’re in-person teaching all the other kids.”
He continued, “I’m cringing. This is upending all of these parents’ lives now and they’re all going to be scrambling to figure out how to keep their kid home. They’re gonna be worried that their kid is contagious with coronavirus.”
Tanesha Grant is currently holding her ninth-grade son out of school in protest of the lack of a remote option and said that she intends to do so indefinitely, even as his school says his absences will count against his attendance. Grant, a community organizer from Harlem, is among the parents advocating for a remote-learning option for public-school students, calling the current situation “very dangerous for our children.”
“They always talk about safety concerns and child welfare. Isn’t it a parent’s first responsibility to keep their child safe?” she said.
Grant said that she doesn’t believe in-person learning is a bad thing, but that parents should ultimately have a choice whether they want their children to return to school or have them stay home over concerns about the Delta variant. The education department reported 560 confirmed cases among students and staff during the first four days of school. “If you see a building’s on fire, you’re not gonna send your kids in there. I see the school system on fire. Why would I send my son into a burning building?” Grant said.
“If this is going on in my school, this is probably going on in dozens if not hundreds of other schools,” Jacobs said. Jacobs, who has been a teacher for 14 years, says the beginning of this school year has been frustrating and that a lot of what he’s seeing was ultimately avoidable. “The big thing that sticks out is the testing. They should’ve done entry testing. They could’ve avoided the first rash of cases,” he said.
The school system’s website that hosts the health-screening survey that families are required to complete daily crashed on the first day back, resulting in massive lines outside neighborhood schools. The current testing policy for the city’s public schools requires 10 percent of a school’s unvaccinated student population, from grades 1–12, to be tested twice a month for “ongoing random surveillance.”
Jacobs said the previous remote school year was terrible, but believes the city could’ve used the experience gained last year to reform the online-learning option in order to make it work better for both students and teachers.
“I don’t know where things are gonna go from here. I hope that the pessimists are wrong. I really do,” Jacobs said. “But I really fear that it’s just gonna be like this Whac-A-Mole game all year long. This class is out for ten days, now that class is out for ten days. And now this teacher’s out for ten days. It’s gonna be awful. It’s just gonna be awful. I mean, that is a terrible way to run things.”
Though they’re only a few days into the new school year, Lorenz is pleased with what she has seen with her children: “I think it’s a little early, but they were so excited.”