One-Fifth of NYC Schoolchildren Missed Class on Monday As COVID Cases Surge in City

At least one-fifth of New York City's public school students did not participate in in-person classes Monday amid a surge in COVID cases in the city and state that have set all-time highs for the pandemic, according to The Associated Press.

Schools, teachers and parents are being forced to decide how safe they feel their schools are as the Omicron variant continues to represent a larger portion of cases detected in New York and across the country.

Experts say Omicron appears to be more transmissible than past variants, but it is yet to be seen if it causes illnesses as severe as Delta, according to medical experts. The highly transmissible variant could cause havoc among schools and health systems even if the cases are milder simply from the number of cases it could produce.

Many parents are opting to keep their children at home because of concern over the rise in cases and the danger of a child potentially being infected while in school.

"Parents are voting with their feet, and many of them don't feel that the current protocols are actually keeping their families safe. And a lot of them don't think they're being given enough information about what's happening to allow them to make choices for their families," Jennifer Jennings, a Princeton University researcher focused partly on the intersection of education and health care policy, told the AP.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends distancing, mask-wearing and staff and students getting vaccinated to keep all involved in the school system safe and healthy.

New York City, Public Schools, COVID
Teachers from the Earth School speak out on issues related to lack of COVID testing outside of P.S. 64 on Tuesday in New York. Cases are spiking to all-time high levels in New York in recent weeks, which led to an estimated 20 percent of NYC public school students not attending classes in person Monday. Brittainy Newman/Associated Press

Kathryn Malara, a Brooklyn teacher, lingered on a street Tuesday, filled with dread about going to her job.

"I'm sitting in my car terrified to walk into school," she wrote on Twitter just before taking a deep breath and heading to her classroom. "Cases exploding. People I really care about are sick & frightened."

The quick spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has stirred another angst-ridden reckoning about whether in-person schooling is worth the risk. Malara and other teachers worry about endangering their health by entering crowded schools. Frustrated parents wonder how to keep their children safe and whether campuses could become superspreader sites.

"It's creeping back up again, and I don't like this. I'm worried. Lives are at stake here — not just my son's life," said Starita Ansari, a public school parent in Manhattan who is keeping her 10th grader home after being rattled by the latest COVID-19 infections at his school.

"Detection of cases in schools does not necessarily mean that transmission occurred in schools," the CDC said.

Most schools across the country are keeping classrooms open, despite the new threat from Omicron, but some school districts have moved to limit in-person instruction as a precaution.

On Friday, one of the largest school districts on the East Coast, the Prince George's County district in Maryland, just outside Washington, said it would cancel in-person instruction in favor of virtual classes because of rising COVID-19 cases at its campuses.

Schools in Mount Vernon, New York, and elsewhere also reverted back to virtual instruction.

"There is great concern because we had been doing so well," said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

"Just about a month ago, we had about 98 percent of the students in this country attending school in person, and Omicron has brought about just a huge reversal in that process. And all of a sudden we're seeing infection rates skyrocket," he said, "It's affecting children much more than previous variants, so children are getting sick. Staff is getting sick, and it's just a spread that's alarming."

Boston school officials have not announced whether children will have to return to virtual classes — an unwelcome prospect for Alejandra Hung and his Boston family.

"We're going through this feeling of deja vu, but in reality things are better this time out," said Hung, who has two children in elementary school. "Remote learning took such a toll."

The availability of vaccines for children raised hopes that disruptions at school would be minimized. Public health officials now hope that concern about Omicron will convince more parents to vaccinate their children.

That's been the case for Yahaira Lopez, who lives in a Boston suburb. She resisted vaccinating her twin 12-year-old sons, both of whom suffer from severe asthma.

Even if she herself has been fully vaccinated and received a booster shot, she had doubts about the vaccines' safety for her children.

"But the numbers are increasing, and this virus is impacting a lot of students now, so I just want to be preventative and make sure nothing happens to them," Lopez said.

Her sons have appointments to get their first shots this week.

As of Thursday, nearly 7.4 million children in the United States have been infected since the start of the pandemic, representing 17.3% of all cases, according to data gathered by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association.

Of those cases, almost 170,000 cases were reported over the last seven days of the tally.

The CDC has said that the extent to which children suffer long-term consequences of COVID-19 is still unknown. But it noted in a report last week that a disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic children suffer much more severe symptoms, including hospitalization that leads to admission to intensive care.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

New York City, Public Schools, COVID
Ms. Kaiser, a teacher from the Earth School, holds a sign in solidarity with other teachers who are speaking out on issues related to lack of COVID testing for students on Tuesday in New York. Brittainy Newman/Associated Press