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 are the safest place for our children today. 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 helped lead hundreds of her fellow students in a walkout at Brooklyn Technical High School last week. Students at over a dozen high schools participated in the walkouts on January 11 to demand remote or blended learning options for New York City schools.

High schoolers in New York are not the only ones protesting. Students in Columbia, Missouri, walked out of classes when the school district dropped their mask mandate in the midst of the surge. A few days later, students in Boston, Massachusetts, and Chicago, Illinois, staged walkouts to demand remote learning options. Meanwhile students from Oakland, California, to Denver, Colorado, to Howard County, Maryland, to Round Rock, Texas, have gathered thousands of signatures on petitions calling for greater safety precautions and remote learning. The following week, students in Portland, Oregon, walked out, joining school nurses who had called out the district’s unsafe conditions.

Fifteen-year-old Jaiden Briese 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 is coming from the White House and is being echoed in cities and towns across the country. As epidemiologist Justin Feldman has 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 regulatory approach to workplace safety precautions and non-pharmaceutical interventions (masks, social distancing, etc.). The administration has also refused to invoke the Defense Production Act to mass-produce masks and antigen tests, or to commit the kinds of economic supports (expanded unemployment benefits, enforced paid sick leave) that are necessary to carry out a comprehensive public health response.

In place of all this, Biden’s sole intervention is to increase access to vaccinations and implement vaccine mandates. No doubt vaccines play a critical role in slowing the pandemic, but epidemiologists have long warned that vaccines cannot provide a singular silver bullet. 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 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 packed hallways, many students without masks, rapid tests being self-administered in the halls and bathrooms, and so many teachers and students out sick that learning seems barely possible.

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.

Over the past few weeks, thousands of COVID cases among students and teachers in New York City schools have led to mass absences. 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. Citywide, COVID cases continued to skyrocket, until they hit an average of 37,000 new cases reported 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.

As the Omicron variant advanced upon the city in December, Mayor Eric Adams and the Department of Education (DOE) stood firm on keeping schools open. When cases continued to spike through the holiday break, the DOE held fast, refusing even a temporary reprieve to in-person learning.

Some of the students at Brooklyn Tech were skeptical that walking out would make a difference. 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. So far only students who have tested positive are being promised remote learning.

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.

Choosing 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 has spoken in no uncertain terms about the need to prioritize the economic stability of the city above all else. “It’s time to get back to work,” he recently lectured New 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.

Of course, no one is advocating for 2020-style lockdowns. The students at Brooklyn Tech, for instance, speak with apprehension about their experience last year with long-term remote learning. “I felt so isolated from my teachers and my classmates,” Li told me. Chan expressed the same. 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 partnerships are often inefficient diversions of government spending that typically do more to guarantee profits and returns to private companies, than they do to secure public services.)

Increasing the infrastructure for vaccines and testing, as well as funding to shore up staffing in the hospitals is critical. But how successful this plan will be, and upon which metrics that success is measured, are open questions.

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.”

Adams is technically 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. A proper vaccination and testing infrastructure depends on it. As does a hospital system capable of treating the surge of 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 Times recently 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 rates topped 40 percent in the South Bronx and parts of Brooklyn and Queens.

Those same communities, with the highest positivity rates, also face the most under-resourced hospitals. This problem has been decades in the making. Health reporter Caroline Lewis explained in Gothamist:

The state Health Department routinely seeks to close, shrink, or merge safety-net hospitals that are losing money, which often reduces the capacity for patients. These strategies are left over from a Pataki-era task force on hospitals known as the Berger Commission, whose policies have contributed to the loss of 20,000 hospital beds across the state over the last 20 years. The result is an uneven distribution of the remaining beds, with about 1.5 per 1,000 people in Queens, compared with 6.4 beds per 1,000 residents of Manhattan. During the pandemic, Queens has experienced more than twice as many COVID-19 deaths as Manhattan.

Adams’s $111 million of support will provide some relief to New York City’s worst-hit hospitals. But ultimately, it is a modest stop-gap measure that addresses neither the scale nor the root of the 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 lose money when they serve New Yorkers on Medicaid: The state only pays out 73 cents per dollar of care provided for patients covered by Medicaid. To address the systemic inequality built into the health care system requires, at a minimum, increased funding for Medicaid. Ultimately, a single-payer health care system could level the playing field completely.

To truly fight COVID requires a funded and equitable health care system. It also requires financial support (paid sick leave and stimulus checks for starters) for workers who develop symptoms or test positive, so that they can afford to stay home from work. Beyond this, continued pandemic unemployment benefits would give workers the ability to opt out of unsafe working conditions. Instead expanded unemployment programs were allowed to expire just as the previous surge of COVID cases was rising due to the Delta variant. In fact, there’s no way to live “safely” with the virus without prioritizing health over profits, and this requires spending more money. A widespread COVID testing regime in schools, for instance, would cost $8.5 billion per month, according to the Rockefeller Foundation.

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. Whether Trump, Biden or Adams refuse to put lives over corporate profits, students, nurses and teachers will need to continue to organize for a fully funded national health care system, for financial supports to employed and unemployed workers, and for regulations that enforce health and safety above all else.