School kids return from break to find their teachers out over COVID

The latest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic left city schools struggling to operate Monday amid mass staff shortages following the Christmas holiday — as parents said infected kids should get the same shortened, five-day isolation period that teachers were recently granted.

Among the hardest hit was Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn, where teacher Lydia Howrilka said 46 co-workers called out sick and forced those who showed up to shuttle between classrooms to try to fill in the gaps.

Clara Barton 10th-grader Mya McMillan, 15, said she had three classes without teachers “because of COVID.”

“You’re supposed to log on to Google Classroom and do work, but speaking as a teenager: When there’s no teacher, I just be chilling,” she said.

Classmate Jade Davis, 15, said many students decided to play hooky when it became clear their teachers weren’t showing up.

“It was way too quiet in the halls today,” Jade said.

“Just walking past classrooms you could tell there were a lot of students missing.”

Jade Davis, 15, left, and Mya McMillan, 15, students at Clara Barton High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which had dozens of teachers call out sick today due to COVID-19.
Stephen Yang

At the Health Education Research Occupation High School in The Bronx, teacher and union leader Jasmine Testa said that 18 of 60 educators — nearly one-third — had called out sick amid the surge in coronavirus cases caused by the highly contagious, but far less deadly Omicron variant.

Testa said her many of her fellow United Federal of Teachers chapter leaders reported absentee rates of roughly 25 percent and she called for the Department of Education to resume remote learning until the situation stabilizes.

Mayor Eric Adams, new Schools Chancellor David Banks, Gov Kathy Hochul and parents have decried a return to remote schooling as detrimental to the well being of the students after nearly two years of remote learning.

Still, Test claimed, “We are being pushed into unsafe schools.”

A school bus is parked next to a poster urging individuals to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Schools reopened Monday amid the latest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which left many city schools struggling to operate with mass staff shortages.
Stephen Yang

On Sunday, the principal of PS 58 in Cobble Hill, Katherine Dellostritto, sent parents an email announcing that a staff shortage there had forced her to unilaterally close the school Monday and hold classes online.

“At 2:00 this afternoon, I requested an emergency operational closure of our building for Monday, but the Department of Education has not provided a clear response to this staffing crisis,” Dellostritto wrote.

In a statement, the DOE deniedDellostritto’s allegations and said it “been assessing staffing levels at PS 58” and “was working to provide staffing supports to the Principal to ensure they could open.”

Schools Chancellor David Banks, Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, Mayor Eric Adams and Rafael Salamanca Jr., Council Member for the 17th District of NYC stand with students.
Mayor Eric Adams, second from right, has vowed to keep schools open during the latest Omicron surge.

“Unfortunately, she sent this note out without approval and we are investigating and exploring if disciplinary action is warranted,” the agency added.

Other schools with large teacher shortages included the Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School in Manhattan, where about one-third were missing, and Forest Hills High School in Queens, which had about 40 out sick, sources said.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said he was “concerned” about the staffing crunch while greeting workers at a Manhattan school Monday morning.

Although Adams on Monday vowed to keep schools open, Mulgrew — who called for them to go remote this week — warned there soon may be no choice.

“We’ve seen throughout the last week, throughout the metro area, there’s been higher absenteeism in all industries,” he said.

“If the entire [school] system has a large number of people who are out, then we would have to look at the entire system having to go to a remote situation.”

Gov. Hochul speaks at a press conference.
Gov. Kathy Hochul insisted that her policies were focused on keeping students inside their classrooms.
Darren McGee- Office of Governor

Meanwhile, parents called on Gov. Kathy Hochul to ease the isolation period for kids who test positive from 10 to five days, as she did on Dec. 24 for multiple categories of “essential workers” across the state, including teachers.

“Why are there two sets of guidelines?” said parent Jean Hahn of Queens.

“It’s very confusing. I think the biggest failing of public policy is that they can’t get their messaging right and there are different standards that aren’t based on science.”

Hahn added: “It’s adding to the hysteria. People are just not clear on any of this.”

Deborah Alexander, a member of Community Education Council 30 in Queens, also said the double standard “once again treats kids as second-class citizens when it comes to this pandemic.”

An outside view of Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn.
Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn was one of the hardest-hit schools, with 46 teachers calling out sick Monday.
Stephen Yang

Robin Kelleher, a mom of three and member of Community Education Council 2 in Manhattan, said that, “100 percent, children should be in the same situation as essential workers.”

“They’ve come out and said that…the best place for children to be is in school,” she said,

“It’s sending mixed messages. It’s not fair to teachers, either.”

Kelleher added: “The unions want to shut down schools, in my belief, and the kids are caught in the middle.”

During a news conference in Rochester, Hochul insisted that her policies were “all about keeping kids in school” but was vague on whether she planned to shorten the isolation period for infected students.

“We are refining everything,” she said during a Q&A session with local reporters.

“You know, we react to what the [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] allows us to do, then we have to adapt.”

A vaccinate advertisment hangs outside of Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn.
Teachers unions, such as the UFT, have filed a lawsuit to mandate remote learning for 2 weeks so that students and faculty can be tested for COVID-19.
Stephen Yang

And although Hochul said, “I’ll get back to students,” she never actually did, except to pivot and decry the “digital divide” that made remote learning especially difficult for “communities of color [that]  did not have access to high-speed broadband are the devices to allow students to learn.”

“The best place for equality of education, the best opportunities for learning, is in a classroom,” she said.

Later, Hochul was asked what message she wanted to send to parents.

“My view is that every child should be back in school unless they’re testing positive,” she said.

“And the reason we know that this is safe is that it is not being spread in schools. It’s more likely that they’re getting it because of hanging out with their relatives and their friends in the neighborhood.

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