‘The mayor and chancellor should spare us the optics of the “great comeback” and focus more on sparing the lives of those most at-risk.’

Adi Talwar

P.S. 280 in the Bronx

Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City School Chancellor Meisha Porter, once champions for the city’s most vulnerable, have now turned their backs on them. 

The first day of school is less than a week away and high-risk immunocompromised students and families are being left to fend for themselves.

This school year there will likely be clusters of COVID-19 outbreaks in NYC’s 1,876 schools, but the explosion of the highly transmissible Delta variant—which is more than two times as contagious as previous variants and has caused pediatric hospitalizations to surge—has created a new threat to schools reopening. But the lack of concern for those most at-risk puts the immunocompromised in a dangerous, no-win situation.

Immunocompromised children and school employees waited all summer to find out if they will be provided a safer option to lower their risk of serious illness, hospitalization or even death. In the previous school year, medically fragile students could learn virtually and high-risk staff could apply for a medical accommodation to work remotely.

Read More: As NYC Students Head Back to School, Immunocompromised Families Push for Remote Option

But their pleas have been ignored by the mayor and chancellor, even as education advocates, City Council members and immunocompromised families fought for months for a safer option.

Back-to-school guidance released by the city on Aug. 26 says immunocompromised students would only be permitted medically-necessary “home instruction”—a program that already existed before the pandemic and often entails just five hours of weekly instruction, nothing like the full day of classes that last year’s remote option provided.

This is an about-face for a mayor who has made access to education and enrichment programs a centerpiece of his administration. De Blasio often doesn’t get credit for his early childhood successes, particularly programs for vulnerable families. Universal Pre-K, something previous mayors scoffed at and dozens of other states have still failed to implement, began under de Blasio’s tenure. Free after-school programs that dramatically increased access to recreational activities and provided a safe space for children were also implemented under his administration. 

At a time when school districts across the country notoriously humiliated families struggling to pay for school lunches—including an Alabama school that stamped a student’s arm with “I need lunch money”—de Blasio stuck to his campaign promise and began universal free school lunches. 

But now de Blasio and Porter, a former youth organizer, are preoccupied with staging a robust citywide comeback—at the expense of those most in need. 

“We are opening full time for every student because we know we can protect their health and safety—and yours,”  Chancellor Porter stated in an email to parents on July 9. 

But can they? Social distancing is not possible for many school staff who share crowded offices, some without a window, and many classrooms are too small or crowded for teachers and students to remain the CDC-recommended three feet apart rule.

“This is a serious issue for many at-risk families. If an immunocompromised student gets sick—or their sibling or their parent are immunocompromised—and they bring home the virus, it can have a devastating impact on a family,” says Emily Skeen, a pediatric nurse in New York City who works with medically fragile children. 

“Why take such a hardline approach? It’s unnecessary, cruel and compromises people’s health,” she adds.

Students younger than 12, including many who are immunocompromised, are not eligible to be vaccinated and for some immunocompromised people the protection that the shot provides may be limited. Vaccines greatly reduce the risk of being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19, but people who are immunocompromised may not get the same benefits. The American Society for Microbiology reports that studies have shown “immunocompromised populations do not mount the same response to vaccination as non-compromised populations.”

The United Federation of Teachers, who championed these safety issues last year, appeared to do little to advocate for their at-risk members this coming school year, leaving immunocompromised staff with only two options: return and risk their health or go on an unpaid leave and forfeit their salary. 

The NYC Department of Education is certainly not the only school district across the country to refuse a remote option, but why follow the trend of risky decisions being made in other states?

New York City schools are certainly taking much more precautions then some other large states (requiring vaccinations for staff, mask wearing, contact tracing and testing) while in states like Texas and Florida, COVID-19 cases continue to surge. Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has spent months trying to block school districts from enacting basic safety protocols instead of protecting vulnerable children. 

But despite the precautions New York City is taking, failing to offer a remote option for those who need it is downright dangerous. Yes, many people have been working in-person during the pandemic, but just because other companies would not or could not provide a remote option doesn’t justify city officials’ refusal to do something that is both necessary and possible. 

Remote learning and working has already been in place since March 2020 in the DOE, so providing this option does not require reinventing the whole system as school staff already have protocols in place to do this.

The city must not forget about students and staff with a compromised immune system that leaves them susceptible to severe infection.       

The mayor and chancellor should spare us the optics of the “great comeback” and focus more on sparing the lives of those most at-risk.

Misha Valencia is a clinician for the Department of Education and a journalist whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Marie Claire, Healthline, Parents Magazine, Good Housekeeping, DAME Magazine, Al Jazeera, and many others.