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Eric Adams’ first big job as mayor: reopening schools for the new year

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Eric Adams’ first big job as mayor: reopening schools for the new year

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On Thursday morning, New York City students entered their classrooms one last time before winter break, at the end of what was by far the most disturbed and chaotic week of the fall semester.

Perhaps the most pressing question for new mayor Eric Adams is how these nearly one million children and around 75,000 teachers will return on January 3 for the start of the spring semester – just two days later. the swearing-in of Mr. Adams. .

Children and staff are set to return to 1,600 schools across the city amid a dramatic increase in virus cases caused by the Omicron variant, an increase that city officials say will almost worsen certainly over the next few weeks.

Mr Adams said he does not support large-scale shutdowns. “We cannot shut down the city every time a new variant appears,” he said this week. He has also said in the past that he will support a vaccination mandate for eligible students.

A spokesperson for Mr Adams declined to comment on his specific plans for schools, citing ongoing discussions with his team. But Mr. Adams and the new chancellor of schools, David C. Banks, are weighing various options.

Mr Banks has been in contact with union officials and other education leaders in recent days, according to several people familiar with the talks, to discuss testing and staffing issues that can be resolved before the start of the next semester.

The increase in cases in schools caused more disruption last week in New York City than at any time this school year.

Eleven schools were temporarily closed on Wednesday evening due to confirmed cases of the coronavirus, more than half of the total 17 schools that were closed at any time during the semester. More than 420 of the city’s roughly 65,000 classrooms remain empty Thursday due to the exhibits.

Two of the currently closed schools are part of the Eagle Academy network, the public boys’ schools that Mr. Banks founded in 2004. In a recent interview, Mr. Banks spoke of the deep isolation that Eagle students have experienced during the closures. of schools.

The city’s school case finding system, known as the Situation Room, is also collapsing under rapidly rising infections among staff and students, educators and union officials have said.

In interviews, public health experts, union officials and educators said the relative success of reopening New York’s schools so far has made it even more crucial that parents and educators do not lose faith in reopening at this stage of the pandemic.

They also agreed that Mr Adams should take action to avoid the type of outbreak the school system has avoided since its first partial reopening in fall 2020.

“Something must be done is on everyone’s radar” said Mark Cannizzaro, president of the city’s principals’ union. “This is an opportunity for the new administration. They’ll instill a hell of a lot of confidence in people if they have procedures in place that work well.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Teachers’ Federation, warned Adams on Wednesday that the union could change its support for keeping schools open if classroom testing was not increased.

New York has already implemented a vaccination mandate for all adults working in schools in the city, and masks are required for students and staff. Omicron is extremely contagious, even in people who have been vaccinated.

The country’s major urban school districts are grappling with how to reopen schools in January. But New York City, the neighborhood currently most at risk from the new variant, will see its entire municipal government change over the weekend before the holidays end.

One of the more concrete ideas for mitigating the spread at school came from Brad Lander, the new city comptroller, who on Monday urged Mr. Adams and Mayor Bill de Blasio to collectively create a plan for all students and staff take rapid tests over the weekend. before going back to school.

“It’s ambitious, but it’s not outside the realm of what we might do,” Lander said in an interview. “It’s hard to think of anything more important right now. “

Testing over a million New Yorkers in a matter of days would be an extremely daunting challenge, especially since many of the city’s sidewalks are now crowded with people waiting hours in the cold for tests.

Governor Kathy Hochul said this week the state will start distributing two million home test kits to school districts and aim to provide home kits for entire classes when a single child tests positive. If the children are negative and have no symptoms, they can return to school without quarantine, she said.

Dr Michael Mina, a former Harvard epidemiologist and scientific director of eMed, a company that verifies rapid home test results, said the city could get enough tests in the coming week if it acts quickly.

“It’s not a difficult task to get that many tests, these companies do between one and five million tests a day,” he said. “If New York City wanted to buy them, they absolutely could, and it would be worth it.”

Dr Mina said the city should provide every student and staff member with rapid tests during the break.

“We don’t have to shut down, we have a lot of control over it,” Dr Mina said.

Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, DC, announced Monday that schools will reopen there two days later than originally planned to allow students and staff to collect and administer rapid tests before returning. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu stated that each student would receive a kit with two home tests this week.

But dramatically increasing testing in schools does not replace adding and strengthening immunization mandates, said Dr Wafaa El-Sadr, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University.

Requiring all adults working in schools to receive their booster shots and introducing a vaccination mandate for students should be immediate priorities, she said.

“By continuing to aim to identify every infected person, I don’t think this will be our way out of the current situation,” Dr El-Sadr said.

Part of the work of preparing for the new semester and weighing the stricter vaccine mandates will still fall to Mr de Blasio, whose last day in office is December 31. Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Adams underlined that their teams work together. in the middle of the Omicron surge.

“We are increasing the situation room staff, encouraging vaccinations for our youngest learners and coordinating with the incoming administration every step of the way to ensure a smooth and safe start to the second semester,” Danielle Filson, Attaché de Blasio’s press release, said in a statement.

The current administration has been regularly criticized for cutting testing in schools this year, which has blurred the city’s rosy picture of low positivity rates across the system.

The city currently only offers school testing for unvaccinated students who consent to testing – a small number of children in many schools.

The city has suspended testing for staff after implementing a broad mandate to vaccinate all adults in school buildings this fall, but now offers limited testing to staff. Many educators said they tried and failed to get tested at school due to supply issues.

The fact that the debate for the coming semester is largely focused on testing and other mitigating measures – rather than a complete shutdown of the system – shows just how unpopular school closures have become among many parents, elected officials and others. public health experts.

Ms Hochul was unequivocal at a press conference on Monday: “We keep our schools open,” she said.

A single elected official from the city, Jumaane Williams, the public lawyer, called on Mr. de Blasio to close schools this week, before the start of the winter holidays. The mayor, who prides himself on reopening schools as many other districts have embarked on distance learning, said his administration was not even considering closing schools.

However, the fact that the school system remains open in January does not mean that it will be fully functional. The major problems reported in the school system this week offered glaring symbols of how schools overwhelmed by Omicron – but without additional support – would operate.

José Jiménez, the principal of 290 Queens Public School, said his school had not learned that a single employee had tested positive for the virus this school year. Then, last week, 14 staff members contracted it.

When Mr Jiménez called the situation room – which he said had been responsive and easy to work with throughout the year – he received busy signals. “Suddenly you couldn’t bring a case,” he said.

Some schools have encouraged parents to keep their children at home and have said they will excuse absences. Attendance fell to 74% on Wednesday as children tested positive or exposed to the virus, and families kept children at home before vacation trips or planned gatherings.

Others only offer distance learning or online classes that children can attend in their school buildings, due to serious staff issues, according to Chalkbeat. Many educators across town are either in 10-day quarantine or waiting for test results at home after the exhibitions.

As the city’s current and future municipal governments scramble to ease the confusion this week and prepare for the next semester, they try to stay optimistic. Mr de Blasio said earlier this week that his public health officials believed the Omicron cases would “clear up” by the end of January.

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