Even just a few weeks ago, parents and educators held a much rosier view of what this school year could be with a vaccine now available: one that offered a bit more normalcy and stability than the three semesters spent oscillating between remote and in-person learning amid an unprecedented global pandemic. However, with a rise in COVID-19 cases thanks to the development of the Delta variant and a lag in vaccinations, New York City is starting yet another school year with uncertainty.
This year, though, there is a sense that the challenges that come with uncertainty can be tempered by learning from what’s worked and kept students safe in the last 18 months, as well as an understanding that flexibility will be required by teachers, parents and students alike.
“The Delta variant is making it so that there is a lot of change happening rapidly, and there is a lot of uncertainty; [but] last year we really were in the dark about what was coming,” said Carmen Romero, who teaches fifth grade at P.S. 89 in Battery Park City. “And I think at least now we have a better understanding of what worked well last year.”
Romero, who taught most of her classes in person last school year, said the safety protocols put in place worked well and created a safe environment for students to learn and teacher to do their job. She credited the mask requirement in schools, social distancing as well as updated and improved ventilation systems in the schools to the low transmission rates during last year.
While much of the country is debating whether or not to mandate masks for school children, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city’s Department of Education have stood firm on requiring all students, teachers and other staff to wear masks indoors. It’s a stance also backed by the Centers for Disease Control.
Teachers and Vaccines
Additionally, all teachers will have to either be vaccinated by the start of school or submit to weekly COVID tests. Talks of a possible vaccination mandate for all teachers has started, however, with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers – one of the most prominent national teachers’ unions – spoke recently in favor of such a requirement. Officially, the city has reported that about 60 percent of its teachers are fully vaccinated.
Currently, there is no requirement for students to receive the vaccine. According to the city, about half children over the age of 12 have received the vaccine – but it’s not clear how many of those children attend public schools. The last day to get a shot in order to be fully vaccinated before the start of the school year was Aug. 9. Children under the age of 12, such as those Romero teaches, are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine. She hopes there will be vaccine approval for them soon.
“I do see that the city has ramped up their efforts, encouraging those students to get vaccinated, and I teach 10 and 11 year olds – so my students are not 12,” said Romero. “But I am hopeful that a vaccine is coming down the pipeline, at some point, that my students would be eligible for.”
“We Still Need to be Safe”
La Keesha Taylor, a mother on the Upper East Side, has two boys who are not eligible for the vaccine, and while she doesn’t feel as though the city has handled schooling particularly well since March of 2020, she is trusting in her sons’ own school to get things right.
“Their school was so good; their school was so safe. I think we had just a couple of shutdowns,” said Taylor, who has embraced the mask mandate. She said she believes the city needed to be more cautious instead of lifting restrictions as soon as New Yorkers were getting vaccinated. Though some parents are not happy about the prospect of their children wearing a mask all day long, Taylor sees it as necessary. “I still believe that we still have to understand and still teach that we still need to be covered, we still need to be safe and we still need to keep the protocols in place.”
Taylor, as well as Romero, however, believe the city needs to do one more thing in order to make the classroom a safe place for students and teachers – and that’s to reduce the class size.
“We are still in the middle of a pandemic. It can’t be that we return to classrooms with 30 plus students when the limit is 32. It’s just too unfathomable,” said Romero. “I am hopeful that those who are planning around September are keeping that in mind. We do also want to add social distancing in there. That’ll give me peace of mind as well.”
Though there are only just a few weeks before the school year begins, recent history shows us that anything can change without much notice at all.
“Last year we really were in the dark about what was coming ... at least now we have a better understanding of what worked well last year.” Carmen Romero, fifth grade teacher at P.S. 89