As Delta Variant Spreads, N.Y.C. Parents Worry About Coming School Year

So far, there have been very few cases in New York City’s summer school session, but some parents want a remote option for the fall.

Children in summer school at P.S. 15 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, spend part of the day outdoors.
Credit...James Estrin/The New York Times

Paullette Healy’s daughter, Kira, hadn’t been inside a classroom in more than 15 months when she started the New York City summer school program in July. Kira, 12, came home from her first day full of stories, eager to show off a portrait she’d drawn of herself as a “Covid vaccine warrior” during arts and crafts.

But by the second week of the program, at William McKinley Middle School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Kira’s excitement turned to worry as she and her mother watched the number of reported cases tick up slightly on the city’s coronavirus dashboard.

“It might not seem like a lot, but it’s still scary,” said Ms. Healy. “Watching the dashboard has become something like an obsession for us because it’s the only way we can see how Covid is affecting classrooms across the city.”

Many New York City parents like Ms. Healy sent their children to summer school as a way to reintegrate them into the classroom in preparation for the fall, when no remote option will be available. When the session started, virus numbers in the city were low, and transmission at schools during the last school year was rare, even before the arrival of the vaccines.

But while rates in city schools have remained low during the summer, the spread of the more contagious Delta variant has left many parents worried about what will happen when all of the nearly 1 million students in the public system return to class in the fall.

Ms. Healy said she was so concerned that she began organizing with other parents to call on the city to offer a remote schooling option this fall.

So far, the city has not budged from its plan. But this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that all city employees — including teachers and school staff — must be vaccinated by Sept. 13, the first day of classes, or be subjected to weekly testing. Mr. de Blasio has said that a successful school reopening was critical to the city’s recovery from the pandemic.

Rosa Diaz, a Harlem parent who has pushed the mayor to provide a remote option for this fall, said the rules did nothing to mitigate her anxiety that her three children could contract the virus in their classrooms.

“It doesn’t make me feel safer at all, because my kids will be interacting with other students mostly,” she said.

The city’s Department of Education points to the encouraging virus numbers from the summer session, called Summer Rising, to show that safety protocols that were introduced during the last school year continue to be effective.

“Our Summer Rising sites are proof that we can hit the ground running in September,” Meisha Porter, the schools chancellor, said in a statement.

As of this week, more than 130 of the roughly 12,000 classrooms across the city being used for the summer program were closed because a student or staff member had tested positive for coronavirus. Two schools were also closed, which occurs when there were four or more confirmed cases in different classrooms.

More than 21,000 virus tests of students and staff have been done, resulting in a minuscule 0.13 positive test rate.

Joannie Acevedo, whose 7-year-old son, Karter, attends Summer Rising at P.S. 72 in East Harlem, said she believes the environment has been safe.

“They would tell me if anyone has Covid, they are testing them and I always make sure my son has his mask on,” she said.

During the summer, masks have been required for all students and staff, including those who are vaccinated. (On Tuesday, the department reaffirmed a statement it had made in May that they would also be required when school starts in the fall.)

When a positive coronavirus test result is identified during Summer Rising, all students and teachers in the classroom are asked to quarantine for 10 days — unless they are vaccinated.

Students who are quarantining because of exposure to a coronavirus case are able to do the academic portion of their days remotely. But at many sites there is no remote option for the recreational part of Summer Rising, which is coordinated by community-based organizations, according to the education department.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said the city was still determining the protocol for the fall for remote learning in the case that a classroom is closed because of a virus case.

Credit...James Estrin/The New York Times

Earlier this month when Julie Cavanagh, principal of P.S. 15 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, got the dreaded phone call that one of her summer school students had tested positive for the coronavirus, she felt an eerie sense of calm.

Well-versed from a year of enforcing coronavirus safety protocols, she knew right away the steps she had to take, including calling all families of children in the classroom who had been exposed and letting the district superintendent know that everything was being handled smoothly.

“Obviously the feeling is that we’d all like to be done with this, but the most important thing as educators is to keep our children safe,” said Ms. Cavanagh, whose school is in an area where 57 percent of people are fully vaccinated.

But the protocols that helped keep schools remarkably safe during the past year may not be enough to alleviate safety concerns for many parents, especially with the rise of Delta. There has been so much uncertainty because of the more contagious variants that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed its guidelines regarding masking in classrooms twice in the past month, including on Tuesday.

“With the older SARS-CoV-2, you could be pretty narrow in defining who was exposed,” said Anna Bershteyn, an assistant professor of population health at N.Y.U.’s Grossman School of Medicine. “But we’re dealing with a new variant now and still learning how it’s transmitting.”

Some teachers who are participating in the summer session said they worry because the higher number of students in the fall will make it more challenging to enforce social distancing in the halls and common areas. About 200,000 children are enrolled in the summer program, and a portion of the day’s activities occur outdoors.

“I don’t know what it’s going to be like when we have almost 500 students here,” said Katia Genes, a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan, who is working at Summer Rising.

Teachers and parent groups who have disagreed on whether and how to reopen schools were broadly supportive of the directive announced this week by Mr. de Blasio, though many said they wished he had gone further.

“It’s not strong enough,” said Annie Tan, a special-education teacher in Brooklyn.

Ms. Tan spent the morning of Mr. de Blasio’s announcement fielding text messages from about a dozen fellow teachers about the rules. All of them were encouraged by the semi-mandate, but many said the mayor should formally mandate vaccines for all educators.

The Department of Education said that about 60 percent of school staff have been vaccinated as of late June, although the number doesn’t include staff who received the shots outside of the city. Currently, there is no way for a parent to find out if their children’s teacher is vaccinated.

Ms. Tan also urged the city to ramp up efforts to get children over 12 vaccinated before the start of school. Mr. de Blasio said this week that about 226,000 children in the city aged 12 to 17 have gotten at least one dose. Children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination.

“If de Blasio is really serious about reopening schools, he has to do some kind of campaign for kids,” she said.

Last week, the education department announced that coronavirus vaccines will be offered at 25 Summer Rising sites across all five boroughs.

Mark Levine, chair of the City Council’s Health Committee, said that it will also be important to keep up the pace of school surveillance testing, even as vaccines become more widely available for young people.

“The environment is changing because of Delta, and that should incentivize us to work even harder so numbers move in the right direction by the time schools open,” Mr. Levine said.

In spite of classroom closures and the city’s rising case rate, many parents have been relieved to send their children off each morning this summer to play with peers and brush up on math, writing and science before the start of the new school year.

Liza Schatzman, whose three children are attending Summer Rising at P.S. 60 in Staten Island, said she feels safest when her children are at school, where she knows they’re following intensive safety precautions.

“School is the place I worry about least,” Ms. Schatzman said. “At my school site there hasn’t been one case, and they’ve been there for a couple of weeks now.”

She said it’s also comforting knowing her children no longer have to experience the isolation they did during the earlier months of the pandemic. “My daughter is a social butterfly,” she added. “She’s thrilled to be making all kinds of friends.”