As Delta Variant Spreads, N.Y.C. Parents Worry About Coming School Year
Paullette Healy’s daughter Kira hadn’t been to a classroom for over 15 months when she started the summer program in New York City in July. Kira, 12, returned home after her first story-filled day, eager to show off a portrait she had drawn of herself as a ‘Covid vaccine warrior’ during the arts and crafts.
But during the second week of the program, at William McKinley Middle School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Kira’s excitement turned into worry as she and her mother watched the number of reported cases increase slightly on the city coronavirus dashboard.
“It may not seem like much, but it’s still scary,” Ms. Healy said. “Looking at the dashboard has become something of an obsession for us as it is the only way to see how Covid is affecting classrooms across the city.”
Many New York City parents, like Ms Healy, have sent their children to summer school to get them back into the classroom in preparation for the fall, when no distance option will be available. . When the session began, the number of viruses in the city was low and transmission in schools in the last school year was rare, even before the vaccines arrived.
But while rates in the city’s schools have remained low over the summer, the spread of the more contagious Delta variant has left many parents worried about what will happen when nearly a million students in the public system will return to class in the fall.
Ms Healy said she was so worried she had organized with other parents to ask the city to offer a distance education option this fall.
So far, the city has not budged from its plan. But this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that all city employees – including teachers and school staff – must be vaccinated by September 13, the first day of class, or be tested weekly. Mr de Blasio said that a successful reopening of the school was key to the city’s recovery from the pandemic.
Rosa Diaz, a Harlem parent who pushed the mayor to offer a remote option for this fall, said the rules did nothing to alleviate her anxiety that her three children could contract the virus in their classrooms.
“It doesn’t make me feel any more secure at all, as my kids will mostly interact with other students,” she said.
The city’s Department of Education points to the encouraging virus numbers from the summer session, called Summer Rising, to show that the safety protocols that were introduced in the past school year continue to be effective.
“Our Summer Rising sites are proof that we can get started as early as September,” Meisha Porter, Chancellor of Schools, said in a statement.
As of this week, more than 130 of the city’s roughly 12,000 classrooms used for the summer program have been closed because a student or staff member tested positive for the coronavirus. Two schools have also been closed, which occurs when there have been four or more confirmed cases in different classrooms.
Over 21,000 viral tests on students and staff were performed, resulting in a minuscule positive test rate of 0.13.
Joannie Acevedo, whose 7-year-old son Karter attends Summer Rising at PS 72 in East Harlem, said she believes the environment is safe.
“They would tell me if anyone has Covid, they test them and I always make sure my son has his mask on,” she said.
During the summer, masks were mandatory for all students and staff, including those who are vaccinated. (On Tuesday, the ministry reaffirmed a statement it made in May that they would also be required when school begins in the fall.)
When a positive coronavirus test result is identified during Summer Rising, all students and teachers in the class are asked to quarantine themselves for 10 days, unless they are vaccinated.
Students who are quarantined due to exposure to a coronavirus case can perform the academic portion of their days remotely. But at many sites, there isn’t a remote option for the recreational portion of Summer Rising, which is coordinated by community organizations, according to the education department.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education said the city is still determining the drop protocol for distance learning in the event that a classroom is closed due to a case of the virus.
Earlier this month, when Julie Cavanagh, director of PS 15 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, received the dreaded phone call that one of her summer school students had tested positive for the coronavirus, she felt a strange sense of calm.
Well aware of a year of implementing coronavirus safety protocols, she immediately knew the steps she needed to take, including calling all families in the class who had been exposed and informing the district superintendent. that everything was going well.
“Obviously the feeling is that we would all like to be done with this, but the most important thing as educators is to keep our children safe,” said Ms Cavanagh, whose school is. located in an area where 57 percent of people are fully immunized.
But the protocols that have helped keep schools remarkably safe over the past year may not be enough to alleviate the safety concerns for many parents, especially with Delta’s rise to power. There has been so much uncertainty due to the more contagious variants that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed their guidelines for masking in classrooms twice in the past month, including Tuesday.
“With the old SARS-CoV-2, you might be narrow enough to define who was exposed,” said Anna Bershteyn, assistant professor of population health at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine. “But we are dealing with a new variant now and we are still learning how it is transmitted.”
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Some teachers attending the summer session said they were concerned that the higher number of students in the fall will make it harder to maintain social distancing in hallways and common areas. About 200,000 children are enrolled in the summer program, and part of the day’s activities take place outdoors.
“I don’t know what it’s going to look like when we have almost 500 students here,” said Katia Genes, a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan, who works at Summer Rising.
Teachers and parent groups who disagreed on whether and how to reopen schools broadly supported the directive announced this week by Mr de Blasio, although many said they would have liked let him go further.
“It’s not strong enough,” said Annie Tan, a special education teacher in Brooklyn.
Ms. Tan spent the morning of Mr. de Blasio’s announcement texting about a dozen fellow teachers about the rules. All were encouraged by the semi-term, but many said the mayor should officially impose vaccines on all educators.
The education ministry said about 60% of school staff had been vaccinated by the end of June, although the number does not include staff who received the vaccines outside the city. Currently, there is no way for a parent to know if their children’s teacher is vaccinated.
Ms. Tan also urged the city to step up efforts to have children over 12 immunized before school starts. Mr de Blasio said this week that about 226,000 children in the city between the ages of 12 and 17 have received at least one dose. Children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination.
“If de Blasio is really serious about reopening schools, he needs to do some kind of campaign for children,” she said.
Last week, the education department announced that coronavirus vaccines will be offered at 25 Summer Rising sites in the five boroughs.
Mark Levine, chairman of the city council health committee, said it will also be important to keep pace with school surveillance testing, even as vaccines become more widely available to young people.
“The environment is changing because of Delta, and that should inspire us to work even harder to get the numbers moving in the right direction before the schools open,” said Levine.
Despite classroom closures and an increase in the number of cases in the city, many parents were relieved to send their children each morning this summer to play with their peers and review their math, writing and science before the start of the new school year.
Liza Schatzman, whose three children attend Summer Rising at PS 60 in Staten Island, said she felt safer when her children were in school, where she knew they were under heavy security measures.
“School is the place that concerns me the least,” Ms. Schatzman said. “At my school site, there hasn’t been a single case, and they’ve been there for a few weeks now. “
She said it is also heartwarming to know that her children no longer have to go through the isolation they experienced in the first months of the pandemic. “My daughter is a social butterfly,” she added. “She’s delighted to make all kinds of friends.”
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