New York City's newly sworn-in mayor insisted Monday that schools will safely stay open for in-person learning despite an omicron-fueled surge in COVID-19 infections, saying administrative staffers would pinch-hit for absent teachers.
Mayor Eric Adams, after bicycling to work on a chilly January morning, said his message to parents is "fear not" as they send their kids back to class following the holiday break.
He vows the city's new enhanced testing program for schools, which relies on at-home tests to limit quarantines and doubles the number of students and staff randomly tested each week, will mitigate disruptions and keep everyone safe. Vaccinated staffers and kids have been newly added to the testing pool, too.
Adams, along with his predecessor and Gov. Kathy Hochul continue to say schools have been among the safest places for New York kids over the course of the pandemic and that hasn't changed amid omicron's unprecedented spread rate.
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In-school transmission rates have consistently been below respective neighborhood averages, but time will tell as this uniquely vaccine-evasive variant strengthens its grip on the city.
As of the Department of Education's last update on Dec. 30, there are 3,334 active COVID cases under investigation in the nation's largest public school district, 60% of which involve students. Forty-one classrooms are closed, while more than 2,900 are under a partial quarantine. Eight schools are closed of 1,700, the DOE says.
That, for now, is minimal disruption -- and Adams plans to keep it that way.
“We’re going to identify the children that are exposed,” the mayor says. “We’re going to remove them from that environment, and the numbers show the mere fact that a child is exposed in a classroom does not mean that entire classroom is exposed.”
COVID-19 at New York City Public Schools
This map shows all known cases of COVID-19 at New York City public schools. It is updated Sunday through Friday at 5:30 PM.
Building that has been closed
One or more classrooms has been closed
A member of the school community has tested positive but the school community was not exposed
New York City isn't requiring students to be tested before returning to school. Adams says it's a "good idea" but deferred to Hochul on the issue.
Meanwhile, parents and teachers have expressed concern the added precautions may not be enough, considering how forcefully omicron has spread, including via breakthrough infections. As of the latest data, the rolling weekly case average is up 79% over the averages for the prior four weeks, while hospitalizations are up 64% by those same parameters. Pediatric hospitalizations quadrupled in December.
"I worry about my students. I worry about me. I don't know. I feel like I'm at standstill right now," Ada Morales, a teacher in the Bronx told News 4. She added that she's unsure what will happen on Monday.
One school in Brooklyn, PS 58, won't open its doors at all Monday after the principal emailed parents the night before that there weren't "enough staff to open the building safely."
Principal Katie Dello Stritto went on to say that she requested guidance from the Department of Education about an emergency closure but had not gotten a "clear response" to the staffing crisis.
In response to News 4's request for comment, the DOE said PS 58 did not have the authorization to close the school or to send out the email. The department spokesperson said officials were working to provide support to the school so it could open and now the matter is under investigation.
"All of the data shows that the safest place for children is inside a school and we’re working with our school leaders to ensure they are fully prepared to welcome back students and staff safely in-person on Monday," the DOE spokesperson said in a statement. "We have robust measures in place to immediately address any staffing issues to keep our doors open for the hundreds of thousands of children and families who rely on schools as a lifeline every day.”
The school, which serves pre-kindergarten to fifth grade, will reopen on Tuesday, but it isn't the only one dealing with staffing issues. Another parent expressed frustration on Twitter after receiving an email that school childcare at PS 36 on Staten Island would be canceled after staff members tested positive for COVID-19.
The president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City educators, said in an email to members Sunday that the union had asked Adams to postpone in-person learning for a week to assess potential staffing shortages.
"I'm just hoping that not a lot of schools are put in the position where they can't be safe because they don't have the appropriate staffing," UFT President Michael Mulgrew said Sunday.
A group of teachers in New York City filed a temporary restraining order in hopes of delaying the return of in-person instruction until additional safety measures can be implemented to protect students and staff from the highly transmissible omicron variant. It's not clear where that stands, but schools are open in person citywide.
But despite worrying numbers and growing concerns from both parents and educators, the new mayor maintained that schools should and will stay open for children's social and emotional development.
"Put your children in school. If it reaches that point that children should not be in school, we will make the proper call," Adams said.
Statewide, new virus cases have been breaking records for New York recently, and topped 85,000 Saturday. About half the state's hospitalizations are in the city.