Omicron brings tumult to school following winter break

Omicron brings tumult to school following winter break
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Students returned from winter break in early January as the spread of the COVID-19 variant Omicron led to half-empty classrooms, canceled school events, and a wave of teacher absences. Coronavirus testing kits containing two at-home tests were distributed to most of the school community when students returned. Whereas attendance rates in mid-December could be as high as 98 percent, attendance in early January hovered at around 80 percent.

According to the NYC Dept. of Education (DOE), more than 120,000 NYC students tested positive for the coronavirus since the beginning of the school year as of January 21, with more than 70,000 of those cases being reported since January 3. At a City Hall press briefing Mayor Eric Adams said, “Our schools are going to remain open. We’re not going to do anything that’s going to stop our children from coming into schools.” 

Students at Townsend Harris who test positive are required to report the information to a Google Form created by the administration. The data on case numbers is later shared with the DOE’s Situation Room. For every positive case, all students in the class receive two coronavirus rapid antigen test kits. 

Students receive testing kits regardless of whether or not they already received the kits in a previous class. However, in some cases, students were given a choice to receive the testing kits, provided that a large amount was already distributed. 

Many students believed that schools should have been shut down. Freshman Ariyan Abdin, who was quarantining when interviewed, said, “It’s clear that students do not want to be in school, and both students and faculty have made their opinions [about health concerns] clear.” He added that, “the ten-day isolation quarantine mandate is fair.”

Despite agreeing that there should have been a shutdown, freshman Mohammad Mushfiquzzaman thinks learning in-person is, “ten times more effective.” However, he said that, “the wise choice here is to shut down schools until the outbreak cools down.”

A ten-day isolation quarantine mandate is still in place for NYC students, even as CDC guidance was updated to say that those who test positive should only stay home for five days after showing symptoms. 

There has been reporting suggesting that the city is exploring a remote option, but the mayor implied that even if a remote option will be made available to certain groups of students, there will still be the option of attending school in-person.

This past week, there has been confusion over whether the DOE has allowed for a kind of unofficial remote option through attendance policies. According to CBS News, “The Department of Education sent an email to school principals Friday, updating its policy and allowing teachers to offer remote office hours or assignments to kids at home for reasons other than a positive COVID test.” These students, according to the report, would be marked present.

A survey by McKinsey, found that the majority of teachers in the US, and seven other Western countries, believe that students learn more effectively in the classroom. Generally, staying home is better at keeping students safe, but a study by the CDC found that transmission rates can be low in schools, when they use proper masking, limited class sizes, and cohorts. 

Sophomore Daniel Yin said, “If the cases do get worse over this time, I would be more than happy to agree to shut down schools for at least one month or until the pandemic slows down again.”

However, after coronavirus cases fell sharply in New York over the past week and negotiations between the UFT and Mayoral Office on a possible remote option stalled, schools are likely to remain open. During a press conference, Governor Kathy Hochul said, “The Covid forecast is improving – the Covid clouds are parting.” 

Photo courtesy of Victoria Siebor