Students Are Walking Out of School Rather Than Returning to an Unsafe “Normal”

“I just wish they could see these flashing lights, this extremely dangerous situation that we’re in.” That’s how New York City high school senior Dora Chan put it, referring to the recent Omicron-fueled surge of COVID cases in the New York public schools. “Mayor [Eric]Adams said that schools were the safest place today for our children. And when I heard that, I just had to scoff, because I am who he’s talking about — children in our schools — and I know that it is the opposite of safe.”

Chan led hundreds of her fellow students to a walkout at Brooklyn Technical High School last Wednesday. Over a dozen students from high schools participated in the January 11 walkouts to demand remote and blended learning options for New York City schools.

New York high school students aren’t the only ones protesting. Columbia, Missouri students protested the school district’s decision to drop their mask mandate amid the surge. Students in Chicago, Illinois and Boston, Massachusetts staged walkouts to demand that remote learning options be available. Students from Oakland in California, Denver, Colorado, Howard County, Maryland, and Round Rock, Texas signed petitions calling for remote learning and greater safety precautions. Students in Portland, Oregon joined the protest the following week. school nurses who had called out the district’s unsafe conditions.

Jaiden Briese is a fifteen-year-old from Denver explained why: “You need to listen to us, because we’re the ones who are experiencing it. We’re the ones affected by it.”

The upsurge of student protests across the United States is a reaction to a nationwide “return to normal,” and an insistence on keeping schools and businesses open, no matter what. This push comes from the White House and is being repeated in cities and towns across America. Justin Feldman, an epidemiologist has confirmed this. argued: “Our Democratic president — who ran, in part, against Trump’s horrid pandemic response” is now “letting the virus rip” in the service of promoting full economic activity.

Joe Biden’s administration has opted out of a regulatoryapproach to workplace safety precautions. The administration has refused to invoke the Defense Production Act for mass-producing masks and antigen testing, or to provide the economic supports (expanded unemployment benefit, enforced sick leave) necessary to respond to a comprehensive public health response.

In place of all this, Biden’s sole intervention is to increase access to vaccinations and implement vaccine mandates. Although vaccines play an important role in the slowing down of the pandemic’s spread, epidemiologists warn that vaccines cannot be considered a panacea. Yet the administration has used a “vaccine-only” approach to promote personal responsibility and to scapegoat unvaccinated individuals — as though they are the cause of the system’s failure.

Joyce Li is a sophomore at Brooklyn Technical High School.
Joyce Li is a sophomore student at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Feldman explained: “Framing vaccination as a way to opt out of the pandemic, and understanding the unvaccinated to be political enemies, has helped absolve the Biden administration of its responsibilities to protect the public’s health and facilitated the relentless push to restore ‘normalcy’ (i.e., full economic activity).”

Meanwhile, back in New York City, Brooklyn Tech sophomore Joyce Li reflected a sentiment that is persuading so many students to do something about it: “I feel lost in Tech right now.” With almost 6,000 students, Brooklyn Tech is New York City’s largest public school. Li described crowded hallways, many students wearing masks, rapid tests being administered in the halls and bathrooms by students, teachers, and students so sick that learning seems impossible.

Dora Chan is a senior at Brooklyn Technical High School.
Dora Chan is a senior at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Her description echoes a recent Reddit post that went viral, titled, “I Am a New York City Public High School Student. The Situation is Beyond Control.” The student recounted many classes without teachers, COVID tests passed out throughout the day to close contacts in nearly every class, and a student testing positive in the middle of a packed auditorium. “Study hall has become a super spreader event,” the student dryly noted.

In New York City schools, mass absences have been caused by thousands of COVID cases from students and teachers over the past few weeks. According to Chalkbeat New York, at the height of Omicron’s surge, 13,000 of the city’s students and more than 2,200 staff had tested positive on January 10 alone. CitywideCOVID cases continued to rise until they reached an average of 37,000 cases per day. Hospitalizations and confirmed deaths are not as high as they were during the city’s first surge, before vaccines were available, but are still climbing.

Mayor Eric Adams and Department of Education (DOE), fought for schools to remain open despite the Omicron variant’s advance on the city in December. Even though cases continued to rise through the holiday break the DOE stood firm and refused to allow in-person learning to be stopped.

Some students at Brooklyn Tech were skeptical about the impact of walking out. As Chan told me, “We’re used to adults not listening to us.” Many felt that “even if we gave it our all, they’re not going to care.” But it appears that the students’ walkouts have been the first acts to have registered with the mayor. Following the walkouts, with pressure building from students, Adams finally met with the teachers’ union to discuss remote options. Remote learning is currently being offered only to students who have passed their exams.

The City’s ongoing aversion to offer remote or blended-learning options even to those students who are immunocompromised or live with immunocompromised family reflects Adams’s insistence on keeping New York open. Within three days of taking office, Adams famously quipped that “what has been missing in this city” is “swagger.”

“All we did was wallow in COVID,” he said.

Choose Business Profits over Health

Keeping schools open has been at the center of Adams’s approach not only because in-person schooling encourages the perception that the city is moving on from a pandemic-induced self-pity but also, and more importantly, for its material considerations. After all, for parents to work efficiently — and even more so for remote workers to return to their workplaces — their children must be in school.

The Rockefeller Foundation, which has worked closely with the Biden administration on schools’ COVID plans, argued earlier this winter: “tens of millions of adults cannot work effectively, or at all until their children are back in the classroom consistently.”

Adams made it clear that the city must be able to prioritize its economic stability above all else. “It’s time to get back to work,” he recently lecturedNew Yorkers. “COVID is here. We have to learn to live with it in a smart way.” Sure, some jobs can just as easily be done from home. But if an accountant works from home, Adams explained, he won’t also visit the diner downstairs from his office. “Our financial ecosystem is determined by people not being home but being in the office spaces,” he said.

No one is advocating 2020-style lockdowns. Brooklyn Tech students, for example, are concerned about their experience with long-term remote education last year. “I felt so isolated from my teachers and my classmates,” Li told me. Chan shared the same sentiment. She tried to seek assistance when she didn’t understand concepts in class. “But at the end of the day, I was so isolated. It just felt like it was you against the world.”

But what does it mean to “live with COVID in a smart way?”

There are elements of Adams’s COVID plan that are good. He has prioritized vaccination and testing as the primary means to get the city through the pandemic, and has promised financial support to the city’s hospitals and congregate settings. His administration has committed $111 million in immediate support for the city’s strained public hospitals, and another $33 million in loans through a public-private partnership with Goldman Sachs. (Public-private partnershipsThere are many inefficient ways to divert government spending. They often do more to guarantee profits or returns to private companies than they do for public services.

It is essential to improve the infrastructure for testing and vaccines as well as the funding for staffing at hospitals. We are not sure how successful this plan is and what metrics will determine its success.

First, the underlying perspective driving Adams’s approach matters. If the economic imperatives of the city’s businesses ultimately trump health considerations, then even mass surges of COVID cases are willfully overlooked for the sake of the “greater [i.e., economic] good.” Adams has expressed this attitude through his claim that “If we close down our city, it is as dangerous as COVID.” This attitude has led him to downplay the dangers of Omicron. “It’s a different strand,” he explained. “If you don’t have comorbidities and pre-existing conditions and are fully vaccinated, this strand is not as fatal…. Within a five-, six-week period, you cycle out of it.”

Technically Adams is correct. Omicron seems to be less fatal for those who are vaccinated and don’t have comorbidities. Is this a good excuse to sacrifice those that do have comorbidities, and/or who — for a variety of reasons — aren’t vaccinated? His message: one part “you deserve to die,” and one part “you need to get vaccinated in order to help reboot the economy,” is cruel. And it’s not a very good selling point to convince the unvaccinated to get their shots.

Finally, where the “trust the science” rubber meets the road is in the funding. It is essential to have a functioning vaccine and testing infrastructure. It is essential that there is a hospital system capable to handle the increasing number COVID cases. Significantly, as Adams’s administration admits, the New York City hospital system is not only strained far past capacity, but that strain plays out very differently across a yawning chasm of racial and class inequality.

As The New York TimesRecently reported:

As the Omicron variant of the coronavirus sweeps through New York, many hospitals are being pushed to their limits by twin challenges: spiking numbers of virus cases and growing shortages of nurses, doctors and technicians.… The problem has been compounded for community hospitals by the way the Omicron wave has spread, starting in wealthier parts of Manhattan and then moving to low-income neighborhoods that rely on safety net hospitals. This week, the Covid positivity rate topped 40 percent in the South Bronx as well as parts of Brooklyn and Queens.

These same communities also have the lowest number of hospitals and the highest positive rates. This problem has been around for decades. Caroline Lewis, a health reporter explained it in Gothamist:

The state Health Department regularly seeks out to close, shrink, and merge safety-net hospitals that have lost money. This can often result in a reduction in patient capacity. These strategies are leftovers from the Berger Commission, an Obama-era task force on hospitals. Its policies have led to the loss in state hospital beds of nearly 20,000 over the past 20 years. This results in a uneven distribution of the remaining beds. Queens has 1.5 beds per 1,000 residents, while Manhattan has 6.4. Queens has had more than twice the number of COVID-19-related deaths during the pandemic than Manhattan.

Adams’s $111 million of support will provide some relief to New York City’s worst-hit hospitals. However, it is only a temporary solution that doesn’t address the root problem. Lewis wrote, “Under the current system, health care providers get paid less for serving poor people than they do for serving middle class or wealthy people.” This is because hospitals LoseNew Yorkers receive Medicaid money: The state pays only 73 cents per dollar for care that is provided to Medicaid patients. The minimum funding requirement for Medicaid must be increased to address the systemic inequality in the health system. A single-payer system of health care could eventually level the playing field.

A funded and equitable system of health care is essential to combat COVID. It also requires financial supportWorkers who are diagnosed with symptoms or have tested positive for the disease should be eligible for paid sick leave and/or stimulus checks so that they can stay at work. In addition, workers would have the option to leave unsafe work environments by receiving continued pandemic unemployment benefit. Expanded unemployment programs were instead allowed to expire as the Delta variant caused an increase in COVIDs. In fact, there’s no way to live “safely” with the virus without prioritizing health over profits, and this requires spending more money. According to the Rockefeller Foundation, a widespread COVID testing program in schools would cost $8.5 million per month.

The political bankruptcy of Eric Adams’s approach in New York City is not unique. It reflects a national political consensus to “return to normal,” and a long-standing failure of our broken health care system. That this consensus is being led by Democrats gives lie to the notion that Donald Trump’s unique barbarity or stupidity is alone responsible for hundreds of thousands of COVID deaths. Students, nurses, and teachers will continue to advocate for a fully funded national healthcare system, financial support for unemployed workers and regulations that promote safety and health.