STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city Department of Education (DOE) need to follow the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, and allow all students to attend school in-person five days a week amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Rep. Nicole Malliotakis recently stated during a House subcommittee hearing in front of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
The first-term congresswoman said de Blasio is “dragging his heels,” and students are suffering because of it.
Malliatokis (R-Staten Island/South Brooklyn), who is a member of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Response, voiced her concerns to Fauci and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, during a recent meeting of the subcommittee.
She said she understands that the NYC public school district is the largest in the country, with 1.1 million students, but with many parents still opting to keep their children home for remote learning full-time, the schools should be able to accommodate all those who want to learn in-person across all grade levels five days a week.
BLENDED LEARNING MODEL
Some NYC schools are currently using a blended learning model, in which students are on campus two to three days a week and learning remotely the other days. But many schools across the city are offering students five-day-a-week in-person instruction.
During a March 24 to April 9 opt-in window, families of children who are full-time remote learners were able to let their school know they want to switch to in-person learning. It was the second time kids were able to switch to traditional classroom learning. The first opt-in period was in mid-November.
The mayor said more than 50,000 students opted to return to school buildings, and will do so beginning April 26 across all grade levels. According to the DOE, the total number of students who have opted to learn in-person — including students from this most recent opt-in period — is about 365,000, or nearly 40%. Before the latest opt-in period, just 30% of city public school students were learning on campus.
“New York City set the reopening gold standard for districts across the country, and we are thrilled to welcome back approximately 51,000 new students of all grade levels to schools in two weeks,” said city Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter recently. “None of this would be possible without our resilient principals, educators, staff and families, and I thank them all for their tireless efforts to ensure every student who wants the opportunity to have an in-person learning experience has one.”
A NEED FOR PARENTAL CHOICE
But Malliotakis said she feels that more can be done.
“I think at this point that it should be parental choice and the city should accommodate full in-person instruction. Catholic schools have been doing it since September without issue; there’s no reason that public schools, especially now that vaccinations have been made available to all teachers and the CDC has made this recommendation, that the city can’t do it,” she told the Advance/SILive.com.
The updated CDC school guidance states that the distance between students can be reduced from six feet to three feet — allowing the city to accommodate more students. The CDC said students can safely sit just three feet apart in the classroom as long as they wear a mask, but should be kept the usual six feet away from one another at sporting events, assemblies, lunch, or chorus practice.
However, de Blasio and Porter have said that only preschool and elementary school students will be allowed to sit three feet apart. Middle and high school students will remain seated six feet apart.
“Even with the existing six-foot rule in middle and high school, we will be able to accommodate all kids who want to come back,” de Blasio said.
Parents have expressed frustration with remote learning — it’s been a challenge to keep a child’s attention at a computer screen for an extended period of time, in addition to issues with parents trying to work during the school day.
“Most parents say that virtual learning isn’t working,” Malliotakis said, adding that the city should be taking feedback from parents to make the at-home learning experience better.
MENTAL HEALTH CONCERNS
The congresswoman brought another potential crisis to the attention of Fauci and other top health officials during the hearing — the possibility of a mental health and obesity plight among school-aged children.
“Kids are at home not getting socialization, they’re in the house and may not be participating in athletics, they may not have access to healthy food and mental health services… obesity and mental health can be a real issue,” she said. “We can’t neglect that there will be another health crisis keeping children inside in front of computers all day.”
Multiple NYC public school students have taken their life so far this academic year, according to several reports. One of those is Jasier Kelly, a 16-year-old Staten Islander who died by suicide on Feb. 4.
There were four suicides during the 2019-2020 school year.
Social isolation caused by the pandemic can negatively impact the mental health of children, research shows, and experts suggest that disease control measures caused by the pandemic could exacerbate children’s cognitive struggles.
City officials acknowledged earlier this year the alarming trend among city public school students — an increase in suicides — and said the best way to help is to get all students back in school buildings.
FOLLOW KRISTIN F. DALTON ON TWITTER.