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5 big questions as New York City students head back to school

New York City’s public schools are welcoming back students Monday who have already lived through 18 months of the coronavirus pandemic and have faced unprecedented challenges when it comes to learning.

While some things are certain as classes begin — like the vaccine availability for children 12 and over — how the school year unfolds is filled with unknowns as the delta variant ravages the U.S. Here are five major questions about what the 2021-22 school year will entail.

1. How much remote or alternate learning will be possible?  

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in August that all children will learn in-person five days a week, with no remote option. 

Students who are immunocompromised, or who have a specific medical condition listed by the Department of Education (DOE), including cancer or multiple sclerosis, are eligible to apply for “medically necessary instruction.” That will mostly be provided via an online platform, according to the DOE, and can be provided in-person at home if necessary.  

The case is different if students attend class in person, but then have to quarantine. 

In elementary school, if a student comes down with COVID, they are required to quarantine for 10 calendar days along with the rest of their class, as there are no vaccines currently available for children under 12. If a student in middle or high school gets COVID, they are directed to quarantine for 10 days, along with other unvaccinated students who are close contacts in their classes, and vaccinated students who are showing symptoms. Those close contacts can test back in on the eighth day if they’re negative for COVID. 

If an entire classroom is forced to quarantine because a student gets COVID, students will receive live remote instruction, according to the DOE. If only a few students in class have to quarantine, they will get “asynchronous remote instruction, with support from teachers through office hours,” according to the agency. Teachers will be paid for that time.

Not everyone is happy with the in-person learning mandate. Several City Council members pushed back at a Sept. 1 hearing with DOE Chancellor Meisha Porter.

“Although the hearing lasted over five hours, we didn’t get many clear answers, just lots of Jedi mind tricks,” New York City Councilman Justin Brannan, a Democrat representing Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, told MarketWatch. “Among other things: We need a remote option, not just a remote contingency plan. We need to know exactly how social distancing will work in woefully overcrowded schools…it doesn’t make sense to me that the DOE would be so adamantly opposed to even considering a remote option for those families that may prefer it.”

More from New York City: Meeting vaccine hesitancy, one calm answer at a time 

The lack of a remote learning option for all students has also rankled some parents. Angela Torres lives in the Throgs Neck neighborhood of the Bronx, and has an 11-year-old daughter who attends the Urban Institute of Mathematics middle school. Torres is the president of the school’s PTA, and also involved in the Bronx Parent Leaders Advocacy Group, which has been advocating for a remote option. 

“Why not allow for a remote option, even if it’s for a limited amount, let’s say 20%?” said Torres, who added that she worried there was not enough COVID testing, and a lack of social distancing in classrooms. “It’s a difficult decision to be made. And some parents feel caught between a rock and a hard place.”

Dr. Jessica Justman is an epidemiologist at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and senior technical director at ICAP, a global public health group.

“I think, at a population level, it’s going to be much better for the vast majority of the kids to be in school and have in-person learning,” Justman said. “You then just have to step back and say, you know, how many children could potentially be hurt by this? And what are the options for protecting them?”

2. What would trigger a full-scale school shutdown? 

A school can be closed if the city’s health department decides that there is “widespread transmission” in the school.  

Widespread transmission would be evidence of multiple sources of infection in multiple spaces or cohorts within a school, a spokesperson for the health department told MarketWatch.  

The DOE has said that it expects closures to be limited. Other school districts, from California to Mississippi, have had to close some schools after beginning the 2021-22 school year.   

3. What happens if a teacher or school staff member doesn’t get vaccinated? 

De Blasio announced in late August that all DOE employees, including employees based in schools, will be required to receive at least one dose of the vaccine by Sept. 27.  

The mayor said in an interview with MSNBC that city officials were working on a set of “penalties” and said “there will clearly be consequences if someone doesn’t comply.”  

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) union fought with the city over what would happen to their members who aren’t vaccinated, and filed a complaint with the state Public Employment Relations Board.

Also see: Back to school with the threat of the delta variant — some parents once again call for remote learning

The city and union were in arbitration until Friday evening negotiating what would happen to school employees who can’t or won’t get the vaccine. The arbiter ruled that the city must offer non-classroom work to teachers and staff with certain medical conditions that prevent them from getting the vaccine, or staff that have religious exemptions, according to the UFT. Teachers and staff without medical or religious exemptions who refuse the vaccine must be offered unpaid leave, but must be allowed to keep their health insurance. Those who decline unpaid leave must be offered severance. 

“As a group, teachers have overwhelmingly supported the vaccine, but we have members with medical conditions or other reasons for declining vaccination,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement. “After our demand for independent arbitration, the city backed off its initial position that all unvaccinated personnel be removed from payroll, and will offer out-of-classroom work for those with certified medical or other conditions.”

4. What safety measures are in place when students return to classrooms? 

Masking, social distancing, air purifiers and COVID testing will all be part of going back to school this year, according to the DOE.  

Schools will try to follow social distancing guidelines released by the CDC, which recommends maintaining 3 feet of social distance between students. However, many people, including high school principals, have pointed out that won’t be possible in every school, Gothamist reported. 

Students and staff will have to wear masks whether or not they have been vaccinated, according to the DOE. Students will be able to remove the mask while eating lunch, and there will also be mask breaks as long as students are distant from each other. Students who cannot wear masks for medical reasons will “be provided with alternate accommodations,” according to the city’s DOE, though it’s unclear what that means. 

As for testing, every school will test up to 10% of unvaccinated students twice a month, not including kindergarten and prekindergarten. But testing is an opt-in arrangement, requiring consent from families. 

“Schools really need to figure out a way to make testing very easy for anybody who’s symptomatic and in fact to encourage them not to come to school. Don’t walk around for two days with symptoms,” Justman said. “I think if you are focusing in on the unvaccinated children, I would test them once a week.” 

5. What happens if families don’t send their children to school? 

Some families that MarketWatch spoke with said they don’t want to send their children to in-person school on Monday, even if those students don’t qualify for medical exemptions. 

Those families are going to wait and see what happens the first week of school, with many hoping that the city will cave and implement remote learning. 

“I’ll be keeping my children home the first week of school, and if there are no changes, I’ll have to enroll them in home schooling,” said Alisha, a mother in Richmond Hill, Queens, with a 7-year-old scheduled to start second grade on Monday. She requested only her first name be used out of privacy concerns.

Related: Number of children and teens with COVID-19 exceeds 250,000 for first time since start of pandemic, as mask and vaccination fights continue 

At a press briefing Wednesday, de Blasio said that if a parent wasn’t ready to send their kids to school at the beginning of the school year, the city would “keep trying to convince them.” 

“Our priority is the safety of our students, and ensuring that they return to our school buildings this fall,” a spokesperson for DOE said in a statement to MarketWatch. “Our staff exhaust all options to contact and support families and every student every day, including reaching out to learn why students missed school and how to help remove barriers to attendance.”

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