Exhausted after two years of the pandemic, the city’s public-school teachers have been pushed to the brink by the rising Omicron wave. Since returning to class on Monday following winter break, teachers say they have faced dismal attendance, inadequate safety protocols, and a staffing shortage, all of which have made in-person instruction difficult. Some are now privately and publicly calling for a return to remote learning until the wave subsides.
About 14,000 students and teachers have tested positive for COVID since the start of winter break, a daily case rate the Department of Education says is consistent with pre-break numbers. On Monday, the first day back from break, attendance was down to 67 percent. (On the first day of school in September, it was at 82 percent.) In a series of interviews, educators described schools staffed by skeleton crews, with teachers getting sick and not enough substitutes to replace them. They’re frustrated with the DOE, their union, and the newly sworn-in mayor, Eric Adams, who has insisted on keeping classrooms open despite rising case numbers. “I’m not going to allow the hysteria to prevent the future of my children receiving a quality education,” he recently told CNN.
The schools may be open, but teachers say classes aren’t running smoothly. “There was just a ton of chaos,” said Monique Dols, who teaches 12th-grade humanities at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx. “Teachers have been saying for two years what we need to do to make our schools safer. That’s the frustrating thing about this. The Department of Education has had two years to prepare with smaller class sizes, with real test-and-trace policies, with real ventilation systems.”
Resistance to in-person learning remains prevalent among rank-and-file teachers. Last week, a group of teachers filed a lawsuit to force the city to close classrooms through January 18. P.S. 58 in Carroll Gardens went against city policy on Monday, going fully remote because of staffing shortages until reopening on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the Chicago public school system, the nation’s third-largest, canceled classes following a vote by the Chicago Teachers Union on Tuesday night to teach virtually. The Los Angeles Unified School District announced on Tuesday that it would require COVID tests for all students and educators before classes resume next week.
“We experienced hybrid learning the past two years and fully remote learning, and it worked out. So why aren’t we having a temporary pause on in-person learning, with supportive services with children with home needs?” said Marilena Marchetti, an occupational therapist serving schools in central Brooklyn.
Virtual learning has been the most controversial issue in education since the beginning of the pandemic, and Mayor Adams isn’t the only one who is wary of it. In the spring, Mayor Bill de Blasio eliminated the fully remote learning option for the 2021–22 school year after 60 percent of families chose to keep their kids at home in the previous school year, yet concerns over long-term learning loss mean virtual learning remains deeply unpopular among many parents and educators alike. “I think the general feeling is that testing is lacking, but people don’t want to close because remote teaching is hell,” texted one Upper West Side teacher.
Frustrated teachers say the mayor’s refusal to go remote is only part of the city’s failure to protect schools. They’re also critical of the DOE’s decision to change screening protocols. Before the winter break, any unvaccinated student who was exposed to someone with COVID-19 was automatically sent home to isolate, but now schools have adopted a “test to stay” policy that keeps kids in class as long as they don’t test positive for COVID. The protocol for teachers has changed too. Echoing new guidance from the CDC, the DOE informed teachers in an email that they could report to work with a mild or asymptomatic case of COVID six days after a positive test. Sick teachers should have a “minimal cough” that doesn’t expel phlegm, the document said. Runny noses are not allowed. Schools distributed K95 masks and at-home antigen tests to teachers to use at their discretion.
“It’s really terrifying and frightening for me because I have my own personal family vulnerabilities,” said Dols, who lives with her elderly father and whose father-in-law and stepfather both died because of COVID-19. “A huge chunk of my students are not vaccinated. This isn’t going to go well.”
In a statement, the DOE said, “Every school is open today because our Stay Safe, Stay Open plan is working. That plan ramped up testing sites, distributed 1.5 million rapid test kits to students and staff, provided all staff members with KN95 masks, and encouraged all our community members to get tested over break to identify cases.”
Teachers’ frustrations extend to their union, the United Federation of Teachers, which has gone along with the city’s decision to keep classrooms open, prompting a backlash from members. “I think the UFT is majorly failing its members right now. I think a lot of people are feeling that way,” said a Brooklyn teacher who asked to remain anonymous. “I believe in unions. I don’t want to say this about my union. It makes me very upset. But I think they’re just not doing what they’re supposed to do. They’re just so scared of the political pushback or something. I don’t know what their deal is.”
On Wednesday afternoon, about 60 educators gathered in front of the Barclays Center with a list of demands, including weekly COVID testing for all students and teachers with the resulting data publicly shared and the repair or replacement of aging ventilation systems. In the meantime, many wanted to go back to teaching remotely. They railed against Adams, the DOE, and the president of their own union. “Hey-ho, hey-ho, Michael Mulgrew’s got to go,” they chanted.
“I’m a little disillusioned by the UFT right now,” said Lisa Levesque, a special-education teacher at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park who decided to become more active in the union over winter break because she felt it wasn’t doing its part to keep school staff and students safe. Levesque attended the rally at Barclays on Wednesday, bringing along a handful of flyers she had printed herself. The rally was hosted by the Movement of Rank and File Educators, a UFT caucus.
A Manhattan special-education teacher who belongs to the caucus and asked to remain anonymous because he lacks tenure said he attended the rally “because it fucking sucks that the mayor can just get away with lying about the state of the schools.” He added, “The word gaslighting is overused, potentially, in discourse, but it’s very weird to be told that 20 percent of students are being tested in schools when we simply know that’s not true.” He said when he put on the mask he was provided at school, he breathed in powder. And like Levesque, he is unimpressed by UFT leadership. “They think their power comes from having friendly relationships with Democratic politicians,” he said. “You can see where that’s led us. A demobilized union, and people died. And so I think it’s important to have a fighting union, like they have in Chicago and like they have in L.A.”
Alexandra, who teaches middle school in the Bronx and asked to be identified by her first name only, said student absences were above the norm on Monday. “I had 12 out of 26 students in one class and 15 out of 26 in the other,” she said by phone. “So there were very few students in class today, and that was emblematic of our student attendance overall. We have a school of about 600, and less than 50 percent of students were in attendance today.” It’s difficult to tell how many of the absences were due to COVID infection, the fear of infection, or some other unspecified reason. “But we do know of some students who have sent us their positive test results who are quarantining at home,” she added. “Some other students are sick, but they haven’t gotten a test yet. And I think it’s likely that with quite a few of them their parents are just keeping them home preventatively.”
Absences weren’t limited to Alexandra’s classroom in the Bronx. The same problem plagued Ayana Colvin’s Elmhurst high school. “It’s been pretty empty,” she said on Tuesday. “This is not the norm.” Teachers too are out, forcing schools to call in substitutes. “I would say a part of teaching is being agile and adaptable,” Colvin said, “but within these two days, I know a lot of teachers have had to make adaptations. There’s been a lot of us coming in having to teach more classes than are already on our full schedule because we have to cover for teachers.” There aren’t enough substitute teachers either, she added.
With student absences so high, the learning environment suffers, Alexandra said. “I think first and foremost, if you’re missing half your class, I believe most teachers will probably make the executive decision to not teach the lesson or to alter it in a way so that the students who are absent aren’t going to fall behind, because what we’re projecting is that these absences are not just a one-day thing,” she explained. “In addition to that, when students’ main classroom teachers are missing, the quality of the instruction and the assignments just aren’t as good.” Remote learning, she said, “still had advantages and still had successes,” though “everybody will agree that it doesn’t hold a candle to in-person learning.” Even so, she said, “the general feeling of schoolteachers and staff are that we wanted schools to be remote until the Omicron cases subsided.”
Colvin agreed. “I think we should be remote until cases go down,” she said. “But it just seems like with the new Adams administration that it’s more about asserting power, rather than actually doing what’s best for teachers and students in terms of health.” Like Alexandra, she believes remote classes are “not the best learning environment.” She has seen the regression, the gaps in student learning. “But we don’t have any teachers,” she said.
Alexandra views the next few weeks with concern. “We teach in the poorest congressional district in the United States,” she said. “So sick family members, for a lot of our students, means complete inaccessibility to health care.” Beyond this, she said she’s frustrated with the way teachers are being treated. “It feels incredibly isolating to essentially feel like teachers are being pigeonholed as glorified babysitters,” she said, “and it honestly feels like we’re human sacrifices for this variant.”
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