Many students in Brooklyn did not make it back to the classroom this week — the first week back at school after winter break — amid a surge in COVID-19 cases that has sent the city’s infection rates to the highest levels seen so far in the pandemic.

Attendance in Brooklyn and the city overall was at just 67% on Monday, and while that did tick up as the week went on, attendance was at just 72% on Thursday, Jan. 5, DOE figures show.

That low attendance is being put down to the spike in COVID-19 cases, driven by the Omicron variant, which, concerningly for parents, led to a four-fold increase in pediatric hospitalizations in New York between Dec. 5 and Dec. 19. The Department of Health said at the time no 5 to 11-year-old who was admitted to the hospital due to COVID-19 was fully vaccinated, and only 25% of those between 12-17 were fully vaccinated.

Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Meanwhile, the Department of Education reported Friday that while no school in the borough is closed due to COVID-19, six schools in Brooklyn have at least one classroom closed due to infections. City data also shows two schools in Brooklyn with at least one classroom partially quarantined, and two with one or more non-classroom quarantines.

For parents, the situation is a tough one. Peggy Hui, a parent at P.S. 170 in Bay Ridge, said while she would feel safer with her children in remote learning, she also saw the positive effects in-person learning has had on her kids.

“My kids love school,” Hui said. “And I know with the pandemic how it’s not that safe … I think as parents we all want remote classes, it’s more safe, right, but for the kids, they love talking with their friends. For them, it’s more fun.”

The push to keep schools open

In spite of the massive surge in cases, New York City Mayor Eric Adams has insisted on keeping schools open, saying on Monday how excited he was about the reopening.

“We want to be extremely clear: the safest place for our children is in a school building, and we are going to keep our schools open and ensure that our children are safe, in a safe environment.”

Adams appears to have a partner in Governor Kathy Hochul, who has also pushed for schools to remain open and insisted that most COVID-19 cases are not being transmitted in schools.

Their position comes as an increasing body of research shows the negative effects the pandemic and its consequent isolation has had on children’s mental health; the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association pointed to “soaring” rates of mental health problems for children and adolescents in a statement in October.

To keep students and staff safe in classrooms, the City has pledged to double its in-school testing program beginning on Jan. 3, testing “the equivalent of 20% of the unvaccinated student population,” according to the city Department of Education, though students’ families must opt-in to the testing program.

So far, the city teachers’ union has said the Department of Education is sticking to its increase in testing. “All schools are open. The city is making good on its pledge to increase testing, both in schools and by sending rapid test kits home,” a spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers said in a statement provided to BK Reader. 

“We remain concerned about staffing shortages, though so far the Department of Education has followed through and sent additional staff to the schools most in need.”

However, Adams’ refusal to shutter schools has not been without opposition from some teachers, as well as city and state elected officials.

Calls for a remote option

Michael Mulgrew. Photo: UFT website.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, told Adams it would be safest to allow for the school system to go remote temporarily while staffing challenges were addressed, he explained to union members in an email. However, he added, the mayor felt strongly that schools needed to remain open.

“We are determined to do everything in our power to keep our school communities safe when schools are open, and our work with the city and the DOE over the break has resulted in more expansive testing protocols and other new safety measures,” he wrote to union members.

Assemblywoman Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, State Sen. Jessica Ramos and Councilmember Shekar Krishnan offered more pointed opposition to the mayor when they urged Adams to create a temporary remote learning option for New York City schools.

In a joint letter, the group asked for a remote option lasting through Tuesday, Jan. 18, to slow down the spread of COVID-19 and allow parents to test and vaccinate their children.

“This time will provide schools with more time to receive shipments of masks, testing kits, and other tools to execute universal weekly and baseline COVID-19 testing,” the letter said.

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