Last week, Andrea Castellano sent her two kids to school for the first time in 18 months, along with a letter expressing her support for a remote option.
Castellano – who is a mother of two students in District 32, which encompasses much of Bushwick, and a third grade teacher in District 23 – said she’s worried her children will catch and spread COVID-19 at school.
Since vaccines still aren’t approved for children under 12, her 10-year-old daughter has to go to school unvaccinated alongside a largely unvaccinated class. Even though Castellano’s 12-year-old is vaccinated, she would still prefer a remote option for him because she said her kids “learned a lot” during remote instruction, and she said there are “loopholes” in the Department of Education’s (DOE) safety measures.
“Many students (and teachers) don’t wear masks properly,” Castellano wrote in a thread on Twitter. “Masks are also not worn while eating. … There’s no such thing as social distancing. We don’t have the space.”
Castellano isn’t alone. During the weeks and months leading up to the beginning of the school year, parents throughout the city came together to demand a remote option.
Organizations like the Bronx Parent Leaders Advocacy Group hosted Twitter Spaces where parents joined to voice concerns about the in-person requirement. The group also co-organized a march for a remote option for students and city workers from City Hall to Washington Square Park with the help of CityWorkers4Justice.
On September 10th, there was a separate rally for a remote option on the steps of Tweed Courthouse. On Change.org, a petition for a remote option has over 6,900 signatures. Politicians like Public Advocate Jumaane Williams have called on the mayor to restore the remote option.
Despite significant demand for a remote option, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the DOE have remained committed to their in-person requirement this school year.
Nequan McLean, president of Community Education Council 16, said there is widespread support for a remote option in his Bed-Stuy district. He thinks the DOE should incorporate more parent feedback into decision making.
“We can’t continue to say parent and student voice matters, and then when parents and students are crying out, we aren’t listening to them.”
(Community Education Council 32 did not respond to a request for comment and multiple phone calls.)
Sarah Casasnovas, the Deputy Press Secretary for the DOE, continues to defend the decision to make in-person attendance mandatory, telling Bushwick Daily, “We have thought deeply about the upcoming school year, and after many discussions with our school communities we decided on a plan that puts safety and our children’s needs front and center.”
“We’ve been engaging with families throughout the spring and summer to help answer their questions and ensure every voice is heard, including through family forums, town halls, and more, and we’ll continue to work hand in hand with our parents during the critical school year ahead,” she added.
Families that don’t meet the list of medical exemptions, but don’t feel safe with in-person instruction, are left with few options besides homeschooling, which, due to financial and time constraints, is not always an option for families.
Some families throughout the city participated in a “school strike” by keeping their kids home from school, in hopes that low attendance numbers would make the DOE recognize the demand for a remote option. Preliminary attendance for the first day of school, September 13, was 82.4 percent – down from 90.1 percent in 2019 and 89.5 percent in 2018 – according to Chalkbeat.
Tanesha Grant – the CEO of Parents Supporting Parents NY and Moms United for Black Lives NYC – is keeping her kid home as part of the strike for safe schools.
“We are the people, we have the power,” Grant said during a speech before the march from City Hall to Washington Square Park last Sunday. “I am instructing all of our parents who want to keep their kids safe, stop stressing. Send an email to your school explaining that you are not sending your baby to school because we are in the middle of a pandemic.”
Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter said the DOE will “work with” families who are fearful about returning to classes. She said the DOE is working with the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) to minimize penalties for families hesitant to return to school.
“The only time the ACS will intervene is if there is a clear intent to keep a child from being educated, period,” Porter said at a press conference.
As the school year continues, there are currently 1,487 cumulative cases in public schools since the start of classes, according to data last updated Tuesday evening. There have been 643 classroom closures and 508 partial classroom closures. At the time of publishing this article, there are currently three classroom closures in Bushwick, at P.S. 123 Sudyam, P.S. 376 and P.S. 384.
On Monday, the DOE announced new school policies that will increase COVID testing but reduce quarantine protocols. Starting September 27, schools will increase COVID testing frequency to test students who opted in to the optional program once every week, instead of once every two weeks. But unvaccinated students who were in class where a positive case was identified will no longer need to be quarantined, as long as they were masked and three feet away from the positive individual.
Castellano is not pleased by the reduced quarantine protocols. She believes there is not enough space in schools to maintain three feet of distance, and that masks are regularly taken off throughout the day.
“Essentially, this new rule means that unmasked, unvaccinated, COVID-exposed children will continue to attend school where they will unmask in front of each other and share tight spaces,” she said.
Photos: Julian Roberts-Grmela
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