Second Wave, Second Reopening
In March when public schools were shut down across New York, COVID-19 cases were soaring to new heights. Now, as the country enters the middle of a second wave, in-person instruction for NYC public elementary school students as well as for students with severe learning disabilities has picked up again.
The original case infection threshold that the city needed to surpass in order to ensure that schools would stay closed was a 3% infection rate, which was raised to a 9% threshold. Despite this, cases are still rising steadily in New York at a rate where NY public schools may have to simply shut down again.
The Pfizer vaccine is still in the process of being distributed across the country, nursing home employees, residents who are at the highest risk and ICU and EMS workers being the first ones lined up to get the vaccine. Ordinary citizens who are under the age of 65 and do not present severe health risks will be a part of the last phase of the vaccine distribution, which means it could take months before everyone in the city is vaccinated. Still, students are being brought into the classroom.
The Real Problem
The New York City public school system consists of more than 1.1 million students in about 1,700 public schools scattered across the city. While NYC has already surpassed the original infection rate needed for city-wide school closures, a new system has been implemented where students are to be tested weekly for the virus. The initial plan was to bring all public school students back into the buildings and proceed with in-person learning with the addition of more frequent testing. However, officials soon realized that there were simply not enough staff and materials available that would allow for that many students to be tested on such a recurrent basis. Therefore, a smaller group of students would have to be allowed to return for the time being. Students at the elementary level as well as those with severe learning disabilities were the chosen group, the reason being that officials argued that remote learning has been more difficult for this set of students.
This is true. However, the reopening itself is not the issue here. The real issue lies in the amount of resources public schools are being provided in order to ensure these students’ safety and accommodate all students’ needs.
When schools first reopened in September, teachers were told to keep the windows open to decrease the likelihood of the virus spreading in an enclosed space. While this sufficed for a month or two, as temperatures dropped, it got increasingly more difficult for students who had opted for in-person learning to stay warm during class. More information on this can be found here. This problem is even worse for public schools that do not have updated ventilation systems and those that have broken or damaged heaters that do not provide enough warmth to those inside the buildings. Despite this, the NYCDOE has still required these schools to stay open without the proper funding to allow them to ensure a safe and comfortable reopening.
Some may be surprised to hear that so many problems are arising so quickly within our schools, but one group is not: those who protested against an unsafe reopening from the beginning.
Student Voice at the Forefront
During the weeks leading up to the first day of school for NYC public school students in September, multiple groups had led protests against the unsafe reopening. Teachers, parents, students and more protested in the city’s streets and vocalized their disapproval of the mayor and the DOE, calling the plan to reopen public schools hasty and vague.
These protests were led by various groups ranging from members of the United Federation of Teachers to students who were more than wary of the prospect of their peers or themselves returning to in-person learning in the fall. These included testimonies from protesters, marches across the city where chants could be heard ringing between the buildings and even “die-ins” where people would lie prone on the ground, signifying the number of deaths and infected students that could arise if schools were not reopened with the proper amount of caution and care.
One of these groups is called the NYC Student Strike Action Coalition, a group of high school students who held both a physical and a virtual protest against the unsafe reopening of schools in September. These students attend different schools across the city, and together they compiled a list of demands that they believed the NYC Department of Education and Mayor de Blasio should meet before schools were allowed to reopen again, including equitable funding, prioritization of mental health and the needs of academically disadvantaged students, and additional support for teachers.
The full list of demands is available here.
This group of youth leaders, as well as other social justice groups, made it clear to their officials several months ago that they believe these needs have not been met, and as a result, that not all students are returning to their schools safely. Their statements were disregarded.
Protesters back in the fall anticipated that the reopening would not go smoothly until all public schools in NYC were provided the proper resources during these times and that, if it did, it would only suffice as a temporary fix. Now, schools have shut down not once but twice in NYC. and the future of in-person learning for most of the city’s students remains unclear. It seems that student voices were not listened to during these trying times.
Jessica Yauri, Jonathan Isla Rampagoa, and Meril Mousoom are three high school students who are a part of the NYC Student Strike Action Coalition and helped to plan as well as lead the physical rally and march that NYCSSAC held on October 1st.
Jessica Yauri is a freshman at Baruch College who says that the second closure of NYC public schools was expected, but the right choice overall. Yauri has a younger sibling with a learning disability and has several older members within her immediate family. For Yauri, she had to face an internal conflict, knowing that while her brother benefits more from one-on-one learning, she also realized that the NYC public school system was simply not prepared to continue with further education for students with learning disabilities while also managing to keep them safe and healthy.
“There is so much going back and forth from school to trains and even while simply walking down the streets there is a danger every second. As a sister knowing that there’s the danger in being a student in the New York City public school system and now that there’s another danger to add to that, the pandemic, which is something anyone can catch since the virus doesn’t pick and choose who it wants to get sick, it (the first reopening) really made me worry that my sibling would not understand the big significance of what would happen if he got sick.”
Yauri’s parents are also nearing the age of 50, while her grandparents are nearing the age of 70, so not only would exposure to COVID-19 put her and her siblings in danger, but it would also spell trouble to those who they return home to every day.
Yauri believes that one thing Mayor de Blasio should have done from the beginning was to be more careful when it came to making decisions that would impact 1.1 million students.
“I think what the mayor should have done, instead of waiting so long to shut it down, was actually try to fix remote learning. I think he was just so worried about getting back in person that he didn’t really prioritize a lot.” And her words could not ring more true as Mayor de Blasio is still trying to rush students back into classrooms that may not be ready to receive them.
Jonathan Isla Rampagoa is a sophomore at Bard High School Early College in Queens, who says that the second closure of NYC public schools did not come as a surprise to him either. Ramapgoa is one of the many students at his school who opted for remote learning and says that he participated in the NYC Student Strike as a way to “protest on behalf of [his] peers who share[d] the same frustrations but could not vocally express [them].”
While Rampagoa has not returned to in-person learning since schools shut down in March, he says that he has gotten the chance to learn what it is like to roam the halls of his school through a friend. He has learned that staff shortages affected the school environment, an issue that multiple elementary schools are currently facing as well.
“For the collective safety and protection of the health of the city, shutting down schools should have been the first action item since the term began.” With the constant back and forth between schools shutting down and then opening once again, to the fear that arises at just the thought of bringing the virus back home, Rampagoa believes that shutting down schools until the city was truly ready to keep its students safe was the obvious choice. Rather than push for students to return to in-person learning so quickly, similarly to Jessica Yauri he also thinks that our officials should be prioritizing improving remote learning.
According to Rampagoa, one of the first steps that should be taken is “freezing rent for the most vulnerable with inadequate housing,” so students can at least have a roof over their heads. Secondly, he believes that there should be a more efficient distribution of electronics, such as laptops, and that the governor should work to provide in-home wifi so that students and their families do not have to stretch themselves thin.
Additionally, Rampagoa states that one of the main areas where our administration stumbled was communication not only between students and educators, but between the mayor and his colleagues as well. “It was such a crazy fiasco, comparable to a comedy or satire. Truly ridiculous.”
Meril Mousoom is a senior at Stuyvesant High School, who says that she chose to participate in the NYC Student Strike because she felt like the mayor was “playing games with our lives”. According to Mousoom, the reason why New York City reached the point where reported COVID-19 cases were surging every day was because social distancing measures were starting to be relaxed and taken with less caution.
When the city’s public schools shut down for a second time, Mousoom felt like she saw the announcement coming, and the mayor should have given the people of NYC more warning.
“The mayor does things far too last minute.” Mousoom says, a statement that aligns completely with Mayor de Blasio’s previous actions in not only the sudden announcement of school closures near the end of 2020, but with his announcement to reopen elementary schools just a few weeks later as well.
Mousoom believes that schools should only remain open for purposes such as serving as a temporary shelter for those in need and as a place for people to grab food and other resources.
At the end of the day, it is not as simple as these students only preferring for schools to shut down. These students, as well as those who have protested against the reopening of schools, are aware that they will need to re-open eventually. However, they believe sending kids back under unsafe conditions brings more challenges than solutions. Their point: if you are going to bring students back into the classroom, do it the right way — the safe way.
“All eyes are on you,” Jessica states as a final word to the mayor. “They’re on your staff, your faculty, your system. If you want to prove that you’re here to represent us, the youth, then please learn from your mistakes.”