schools during pandemic

Three weeks after returning to her school building for the first time since March, Social Studies Teacher Lydia Howrilka contracted COVID-like symptoms.

“I was out and about during the summer and I was fine, then I go into my school for three weeks and I get sick?” she said during an Oct. 7 phone interview. “I really do think I got it in the school building.”


Ventilation, PPE Issues

She described poor ventilation in her high school, which is located in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Although the school received personal protective equipment, it wasn’t available on the first day staffers returned to prepare for classes in September, she said.

“We were doing the best we can. The kids were good, they were wearing masks and they were really trying to social-distance,” Ms. Howrilka said of the first day of classes, which was Oct. 1 for high-school students.

“But it feels really sterile. And it's awkward. It’s really scary to think if I take my mask off to take a sip of water, I could be exposing one of my kids or myself,” she said.

The first day of classes turned out to be the last time Ms. Howrilka went to school—soon after, she began experiencing symptoms associated with coronavirus, including a fever, a loss of taste and smell, body aches and fatigue. Although a rapid COVID test came up negative, she has been quarantining at home.

Unbalanced Class Sizes

A myriad of issues have also come up because of blended-learning, including a Teacher shortage. Ms. Howrilka said the largest class she taught in-person was six students. “Meanwhile, other Teachers have 40 students in their online classes, which is above contract,” she said. “If we went fully remote, we could share the load, and make things more equitable.”

The Department of Education still needs to fill thousands of teaching positions, since more than 20 percent of Teachers have received an accommodation to work from home.

Aixa Rodriguez, an English-as-a-Second Language Teacher in the Bronx, said that Teachers were being forced to go into schools to simultaneously teach a handful of kids in-person and 25 or more online.

“This means the kids in-person are still staring at a laptop screen,” she said.

Jack Jacobs, a middle-school Art Teacher in the Bronx, said that middle and high schools should be remote-only to address the staffing and class-size problems.

“The amount of time we’re getting with the students, and the quality of time, it just isn’t worth it,” he said.

Anxiety About Health

Mr. Jacobs said that he was covering science classes as an instructional facilitator because about 20 percent of the Teachers at his school were working from home. Although so far open windows have been enough to keep air circulating in the building, “There has been some anxiety,” he said.

“Right in the class next door [to me], there was a student who refused to put their mask on and the Dean had to get involved. Those situations cause anxiety because it’s unsafe for the student and it’s unsafe for everyone else,” Mr. Jacobs said.

About 100 public-schools have already closed in neighborhoods that have increasing COVID positivity rates, although the DOE has stated that the uptick was not reflected in schools. Randomized COVID testing is set to start, with 10 to 20 percent of students and staff expected to be tested at every school. Schools in Brooklyn and Queens that are in yellow zones under Governor Cuomo’s Cluster Action Initiative will be required to test employees and students on a weekly basis.

Ms. Howrilka argued that schools being closed in some neighborhoods but not others made no sense because the buildings that remained open have students and staff who live in the red zones that have seen an uptick in cases.

'Hard Decision' Has Fallout 

Mr. Jacobs said that while he understood that it would have been expensive and difficult for universal testing of students and staff to be mandated before they entered school buildings, Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza “made the hard decision to open without testing and now that there are hot spots, they’ve realized they’ve got to have it.”

Remote-learning isn’t exactly going swimmingly, the staffers added. Carmen Applewhite, a fifth-grade Teacher in Bedford-Stuyvesant who received an accommodation to work from home, said that some of her students’ iPads weren’t working and they couldn’t access Google Classroom. Some Teachers were also having trouble getting into math and reading programs because they haven’t been provided access codes, she stated.

Mr. Jacobs added he had one student who was unable to log on until Oct. 6.

“What [the city] should have done is invest more time, effort and resources into remote-learning to make it better,” he said.

Despite the headaches caused by online instruction, Teachers who spoke with The Chief called on the Mayor and the Schools Chancellor to close schools.

'Kids Not Receiving Services'

“Teacher assignments are a hot mess and not all kids are receiving services. If we went remote, all kids could get five days of live instruction,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “The way schedules have been made is confusing, and it’s impacting Teacher planning and curriculum.”

Ms. Applewhite agreed.

“I think everybody is hoping that schools go remote-only,” she said. “People think Teachers don’t want to go back to work, but that’s not the point. We want to be safe, and we want to close the education gap. That’s not going to happen the way this has been rolled out.”

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