Dora Chan, a student at Brooklyn Technical high school who was active in calls for a walkout, told Chalkbeat that, due to her concerns about safety in school, “after winter break, I actually stopped going to school because I live with my grandparents who are at risk and I don’t want to risk it. Brooklyn Tech has 6,000 students. It really is a gamble when I walk in there. It’s almost, like, certain that some people will be sick, and I hope it’s not me.” But Chan’s absences leave her at risk of failing gym class, which she cannot afford to do if she wants to graduate.
In Boston, a high school student launched a petition calling on Republican Gov. Charlie Baker to allow a remote learning option.
“The oppressive adamance of Governor Charlie Baker’s words ‘We count in-person school as school’ is a horrifying example of a dazed and confused education system. Schools aren’t even given the option of turning remote. What is Governor Baker actively condoning here? Are school districts so engrossed in maintaining ‘normalcy’ that they are unwilling to make a change for the health and safety of our communities,” Boston Latin senior William Hu wrote. “No one is requesting a complete turn to remote learning, just an option so that kids can stay safe and still maintain their education. ‘In-person school’ should not be the only way to learn, we figured that out last year. We are not starting at square one.”
At a school board meeting in Baltimore, a student called for a virtual learning option if the schools weren’t going to conduct mandatory testing.
While walkouts and petitions are attention-grabbing, many students are just silently … absent. Many school systems, including New York and Boston, have seen high absence rates since the return from winter break. Many of those absent students doubtless have COVID-19 or are quarantining after an exposure, but it also looks like a significant number of students—like Dora Chan—are staying home rather than risk going to school during the omicron surge. “There’s never been anything like this,” a teacher with 37 years of experience in New York City schools told The Wall Street Journal.
Before Chicago schools shut down as teachers pressed for a remote option, attendance was around 60%. Rochester, New York; Hartford, Connecticut; Osceola County, Florida; Austin, Texas, and others have also had high absence rates—and get this: “Albuquerque, N.M., school officials said student attendance was likely lower than normal, but administrative staffing shortages have prevented the district from collecting complete data,” the WSJ reports.
High absence rates are a teaching and learning challenge for everyone in a classroom. Do teachers go ahead and teach the planned lessons, knowing that maybe 30% of students are missing? Or does everyone tread water, waiting for a classroom to fill up again? And, of course, many teachers are themselves out with COVID-19 or quarantining, and in many school districts, there have not been enough substitutes to cover those absences.
Anyone who is trying to reduce what’s going on in schools into a binary, be it in-person vs. remote, teachers (unions) vs. students, or anything else, is missing what’s going on. What’s going on, to be clear, is a flaming mess. But while we can definitely point to policy failures—both recent ones specifically around the coronavirus pandemic and longstanding ones around school funding and more—and failures of collective action to mitigate the risks of COVID-19, where we are right now is a place where omicron is swamping schools and nobody, no matter how powerful they may be, gets to make decisions on the basis of what they think is ideal. Nothing is ideal, and policymakers need to start engaging with the realities of the situation.