‘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.

21 thoughts on “Opinion: Without Remote Option, NYC Schools Put Most Vulnerable Students and Staffers at Risk

  1. Thank you Ms. Valencia, for speaking up for the many students, parents and teachers who are immunocompromised. Teachers who have to choose their jobs over their health shows how the education system protects their employees. Someone once said to me, “if you work for a system that undermine the parents of students, then teachers shouldn’t expect to be treated any better”.

    • Thank you wonderful work! . I have worked for months and NyC DOE is not listening. They claim they had a plan For unvaccinated and have underline conditions but they still have not told me what that is. I also visited my district school and was told they don’t know the plan the mayor office claim was in place. This will now delay my child’s education.

  2. Outstanding piece!! I am immunocompromised and so is my school age child- and as a parent I should have a choice to pick a safer option. There is no reason to risk children’s health and safety. Delta is still surging.

  3. I’m also a parent that lives here in NYC and I also believe that the safety of our children shouldn’t be left in no one’s hands but our own and that it should be a remote option. It’s like they really don’t care if the teachers, staff, or students die at this point.

  4. I am not immunocompromised but I have equal chance to die from Covid as the 0.01% out there. Is life that worthless that my child’s education must include a death lottery to them and the family? Keep remote learning an option!!!

  5. We have an ailing Grandmother at home who might not survive if exposed to Delta virus that the kids might bring home. Remote option must be provided for families like us who have young kids who cannot be vaccinated and sick elders at home alongwith. Please help families like us get an option for remote option.

  6. And why not even just for the first half of the year, being reasonably optimistic, for kids under 12, until the vaccines are available for that age group? We’ve made it this far! Both mom and dad, unfortunately for our son (2d grade), are immunocompromised. We really might have to make the almost unfathomable decision to pull him out of school, the school we love. It is heartbreaking.

  7. Thank you for writing this article and speaking up for those who have been muzzled by the mayor and the like.
    It’s incredibly frustrating and speaks to the callousness of both Misha Porter and the mayor. Teachers always go above and beyond and I feel it’s a disrespect to our profession and to the needy communities whose children are also immunocompromised. I don’t know what to do. Feeling stuck!

  8. There has never been a good option in NYC for children who are too fragile (emotionally or physically) for in-person schooling: we can pay out of pocket for on-line schooling; we can accept a teacher to come to the home for a mere few hours a week to provide lack-luster teaching; we can home-school our kids (some us don’t have the skills to do this). My child was bullied mercilessly in school during their previous attendance before the pandemic which resulted in severe agoraphobia and panic disorder; the school ignored it when they had the courage to come forward and blamed it on my child. They gets sick to their stomach when thinking of stepping foot in that building. This coupled with having a parent who would have a high chance of death if she caught Covid, despite all members of the household being fully vaccinated means that we will hold off on sending them, even though it means their status may be considered truant.

  9. Parents should have a say in their kids lives. Misha Porter and Deblasio only saying they know what’s best for our kids. It’s all about the money. I’m not sold!!! Parents need to stick together. Don’t send your kids back. They need to listen to us

  10. Remote Option should be available to those who want it.
    The mayor wants to open up at any cost; why he could not wait until all children below 12 years old are vaccinated?

    Keep your children home the 1st day of school.

  11. Remote learning should remain an option for whomever wants or needs it. Perhaps a class action law suit will motivate the mayor and chancellor to reconsider things.

  12. Except the immunocompromised do have the at-home instruction option. It’s the same option the immunocompromised and those medically unable to attend school had before the pandemic. That was announced on August 24. So, this article giving false information.

    • Hi Lisa, that is discussed in the piece, actually: “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.”

      • The the headline “NYC Schools Put Most Vulnerable Students and Staffers at Risk” is wrong because there is an alternative option for the “most vulnerable”.

        • Lisa, You are mistaken. There is not a real learning option for immunocompromised students this year. Home instruction is only Five hours of instruction a week …not a day…a week. That is not the same as remote learning where students get a full day of learning. Immunocompromised students deserve a real education.

        • Currently, there is no alternative option for the most vulnerable teachers and staffers. Requests for medical accommodations from teachers are being rejected without even reading the cases. Some of the parents who have submitted requests for their children have also been rejected or are still waiting for response, hours before school opens.

          https://www.thedailybeast.com/vaxxed-but-vulnerable-nyc-teachers-say-they-face-outrageous-choice-get-back-to-class-or-quit

        • Lisa why does it burn 🔥 you up so badly for a remote option? That means if you don’t like it you don’t have to take it so send your children into the petri dish breeding cv19 nyc school buildings. I pray your kids stay safe because their own mother can’t care to protect them. But I myself & my teen have 8 underlying conditions that per CDC states puts us at high risk fatality for cv19. My kid’s school had a little over 1400 students precovid now almost 1600 during covid. Precovid they were packed like sardines in a can in hallways, stairwells, cafeteria.. the rooms weren’t spaced out either.. I’m not dying because you want to cry about an option that no one is forcing you to take! It obviously doesn’t apply to you so let it fly! Smh God society is dense..

  13. We feel very passionately that there should be a remote option as the Delta variant is rampant, the majority of schoolchildren are ineligible for vaccinations, and lastly given that we know that this is a temporary situation. We truly believe that one more year of remote learning would land us in a much safer school environment. No one wants to look back and realize that if they had returned to in-person learning 6-9 months later that their child would still be alive or have avoided getting long COVID. If you look at the trajectory of the Spanish Flu, it lasted approx. 2+ years. This means we are possibly past the halfway point.

    We are angered that Mayor Di Blasio and School Chancellor Porter have continued to to deny the facts and ignore the pleas of their constituents. This is not the behavior of a democratic one but of a dictatorship. We also feel that this has been in line with Di Blasio’s lack of leadership and sheer laziness. You only have to Google his name to pull up a multitude of articles detailing how late he gets to work and how often he visits the gym, while he is supposed to be in the office, all on our dime. This is in addition to the mental initiative his wife was heading that squandered away $1B of our taxpayer dollars without any accountability. With no remote option, Di Blasio may come to be associated with schools the way Cuomo is to nursing homes.

    It doesn’t sit well with parents that companies like Google, whose adult employees are eligible for the vaccine, don’t have to go back to the office until early 2022. Even some universities are still offering remote only classes this fall and they clearly had the enrollment from students who feared for their own safety to do so. However, it’s ok to send vaccination ineligible kids back to school with classrooms packed 3 times more than they were last year, less testing, and less less accountability into questionably ventilated classrooms with non-HEPA filters for hours at a time? I don’t think so.

    I also wanted to point out many of the alarming points highlighted in an article by the Gotham Gazette.
    https://www.gothamgazette.com/games-archive/130-opinion/10754-major-problems-new-york-city-school-reopening-plan-covid

    • Thank you for sharing this article. The statistics for misallocation of funds are so upsetting, but not surprising. I’d say overcrowding is the #1 problem, and it’s impossible to distance in so many of the city schools.

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