NEW YORK — Students across New York and New Jersey will return to school on Monday after a winter break that saw record-breaking COVID-19 case numbers.
Mask requirements are returning in some school districts that had dropped them. Some are planning to vastly ramp up virus testing among students and staff. And a small number of school systems are switching to remote learning — for just a short while, educators hope.
With COVID-19 infections soaring, the return from schools’ winter break will be different than planned for some as administrators again tweak protocols and make real-time adjustments in response to the shifting pandemic. All are signaling a need to stay flexible, including Newark Schools Superintendent Roger León.
“Change has been the only constant in this fight,” León wrote in a notice to parents before break. He announced Thursday that students will learn remotely for at least the first two weeks of the new year. The virus, León said, continues “to be a brutal, relentless and ruthless virus that rears its ugly head at inopportune times.”
Long after the widespread closures in the pandemic’s early days, school and elected leaders say they are using the lessons and tools of the past two years to try to navigate the latest surge without long-term shutdowns, which had woeful effects on learning and students’ well-being.
Still, pressure from parents and teachers unions has added to the urgency surrounding safety measures as the omicron-fueled surge sends up caseloads and puts children in the hospital in close to record numbers.
In New York City, 2 million at-home COVID test kits provided by the state will be used to increase testing following the break, officials announced this week. Students whose classmates test positive can keep coming to school as long as their at-home tests are negative and they don’t have symptoms.
In his second day as New York City mayor, Eric Adams sought to ease concerns among parents about sending their children back to city schools as cases of the omicron variant surge.
Appearing on morning news shows after bicycling to work, Adams said his message to parents is to “fear not” and that statistics show the safest place for children is inside a school.
He deferred to Gov. Kathy Hochul on whether to require children get tested before they return to class.
Adams says his administration’s next move is deciding if city employees should be required to get booster shots. They’re already under a vaccine mandate.
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City educators, questioned whether the new testing initiatives will be available in every school by the time classrooms reopen Monday.
“We are moving closer to a safe reopening of school next week. But we are not there yet,“ he said.
In an email to teachers, he wrote that the UFT had advised Adams “that it would be safest to allow our school system to go remote temporarily until we could get a handle on the staffing challenges that each school is about to face as we return.”
“However, he feels strongly that schools need to remain open,” the email said about Adams.
To help keep as many students in school as possible, the Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona endorsed test-to-stay in December as an alternative to the previously recommended 10-day quarantines. Hundreds of schools have adopted test-to-stay policies for students who have had contact with an infected classmate.
“The goal remains to keep all schools open for in-person learning five days a week throughout the 2021-22 school year and beyond,” Cardona said in a message to schools marking the halfway point of the academic year. He said 99% of schools were open in-person in December, compared with 46% last January.
Out of more than 13,000 school districts nationwide, relatively few have announced plans to start remotely after winter break.
Like Newark, those districts generally plan to resume in-person instruction within a couple weeks. They include Cleveland, Ohio; Prince George’s County, Maryland; Mount Vernon, New York; Taos, New Mexico; Chester County, South Carolina; and several New Jersey school systems.
Ronald Taylor, superintendent of the South Orange-Maplewood School District in New Jersey, said a spike in cases and subsequent quarantining heading into the break had disrupted operations by forcing consolidation of classes where there weren’t enough staff. He said the district would be remote the first week back.
“Like many other school districts, we have seen a consistent trend, after each of our school breaks, both Thanksgiving and our fall break in early November, there has been a sharp increase in our student/staff population of COVID cases,” he said.
The patchwork of responses also includes Woodbury, New Jersey’s plans to bring students in for half days for the first week, sending them home with lunch so they don’t have to remove masks in the building to eat.