Mayor Eric Adams insisted on Monday morning that New York City’s schools would stay open despite an extraordinary surge in Omicron cases. But about a third of city parents did not send their children back to classrooms on the first day after the holiday break. Attendance was just over 67 percent, slightly higher than the low point of 65 percent the system reached on the day before winter break.
Throughout the day on Monday, Adams was adamant that the system would remain open. He repeated the message in a series of television interviews and after his first official school visit since taking office on New Year’s Day.
“We’re really excited about the opening of our schools,” Mr. Adams said outside the school, Concourse Village Elementary School in the Bronx. “We want to be extremely clear: the safest place for our children is a school building.”
Mr. Adams said that remote learning had been disastrous for too many of the city’s nearly one million schoolchildren in the nation’s largest school district, and had been particularly harmful for children in low-income neighborhoods and homeless students.
But the calm that Mr. Adams sought to project was not shared by the many parents and educators who greeted Monday morning with profound trepidation. After roughly a year of remarkably low virus transmission in schools, Covid cases soared in the week before the winter break, prompting the closures of 11 schools and over 400 classrooms, and the contact tracing system for city schools effectively collapsed amid the surge.
New York City reported 35,650 new virus cases on Sunday, with a 7-day average test positivity rate of nearly 22 percent, according to state data.
Some families and elected officials have called on Mr. Adams to delay the start of school by a few days to allow every child and educator to get tested. And teachers have raised questions about how schools will be properly staffed with so many teachers sick with the virus or quarantining due to exposures.
“This is an all hands on deck moment,” Mr. Adams said, acknowledging that administrators who are not normally in the classroom would be used to address staff shortages if necessary.
Mr. Adams has endorsed a plan created by former Mayor Bill de Blasio that is designed to keep more classrooms open as the surge continues. The plan calls for distributing 1.5 million rapid at-home test kits to schools.
Starting Monday, the city is also doubling its random in-school testing program to give P.C.R. tests to 20 percent of consenting children in each school weekly. But most families have not opted in to allow their children to be tested, which has made the testing pool very small at some schools.
The mayor and the new schools chancellor, David C. Banks, are betting that their plan to increase testing will prevent major outbreaks.
“We’re going to turn those question marks into an exclamation point: we’re staying open,” Mr. Adams said.
Mr. Adams and Mr. Banks have so far resisted calls to mandate booster shots for educators or vaccines for children. The mayor has said a decision will be made this spring about mandating vaccines for students for the fall.
“We’re not at the point of mandate,” Mr. Adams said Monday, as he encouraged eligible New Yorkers to get vaccinated and boosted.
Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s teachers’ union, said in an email to members that he had encouraged Mr. Adams to start the year remotely. But on Monday morning, Mr. Mulgrew said he was working closely with the new mayor and that schools had been some of the safest places in the city throughout the pandemic.
Later on Monday, Gov. Kathy Hochul reiterated her commitment to keeping New York’s children in schools.
“My view is that every child should be back in school unless they are testing positive,” she said.
The state has distributed 5.2 million at-home test kits to schools thus far, and another 3.8 million arrived yesterday and have yet to be distributed.
Under the current rule, test kits will only be provided to students for known exposures that occur in classrooms, although Ms. Hochul said that policy was under review.
She also cautioned against a return to remote learning. “The teachers did the best they could. The parents did the best they could,” she said. “But we ask too much.”
In particular, she spoke about the effects of remote learning on children in communities of color, those who lacked resources and those without high-speed internet access — an existing digital divide that she said had widened into a “digital canyon.”
“We cannot have that,” Ms. Hochul said. “That was an injustice. We cannot have that anymore.”