The Omicron Predicament in The School That Never Sleeps

A look into the dilemma between education and health that the Omicron variant has placed upon Stuyvesant students.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The COVID-19 Omicron variant is taking New York City by storm, and it’s difficult to say what will happen next. For several months following September, it seemed like schools would hold up, and that everything would soon go back to normal. After nearly two years, was this nightmare going to finally end? Soon enough, the city discovered that this was too good to be true. Despite the effectiveness of vaccines and decrease in hospitalizations as compared to previous COVID-19 variants, the highly-transmissible nature of the Omicron variant has led to demands for public school closure, with lawsuits and walkouts arising throughout the city. In response to this pressure, the new NYC mayor Eric Adams has announced that he is reconsidering his prior decision to keep schools open indefinitely, though it is possible that this is only an empty gesture with the intents to alleviate the general public’s outrage.

Despite the new safety measures enacted by the DOE to reduce the spread of COVID-19, many students do not feel safe in the current school environment. While improving ventilation and providing rapid COVID tests does contribute to in-school safety, many students believe that only remote learning can truly ensure safety. “It’s frustrating that the choice is taken out of whether you want to show up to school or not,” freshman Filie Chen wrote in an e-mail interview. “During the dark days of the pandemic, I had the people who I love close to me at home to reassure me.” Chen is especially concerned as she lives with two high-risk family members, and is putting them at greater risk by attending school. “It’s really scary that so many other vaccinated individuals who take precautions still get sick,” she said. “If it gets worse, I will stay home without a doubt.”

Attendance rates have shown an all-time low with over 25 percent of Stuyvesant students absent on January 7, and over 50 percent citywide. With the option for asynchronous learning with excused absence only available to students who test positive for COVID-19, this 25 percent represents the students who are forced to pose risk to their academic record for the sake of the health and safety of their families. Stuyvesant’s significantly higher attendance rate despite the Omicron crisis is likely due to the high-pressure environment inflicted by both students’ peers and parents. Such pressure can manifest itself in extreme and detrimental ways. For instance, one senior’s post on Stuyvesant Confessions admits to attending school after testing positive for COVID-19 due to her parents’ overwhelming pressure for her to maintain her GPA. Despite the risk of currently attending school, COVID positive or not, prolonged absence simply isn’t a sustainable option to many. “I know it is very risky to continue interacting with 150+ people every day in school while a COVID surge is going on, but the prospect of catching up on work from being absent discourages me,” freshman Eva Lam wrote in an e-mail interview. “Catching up on missed work and having to self-teach yourself the new material learned is not as simple as the teachers think it is, and this pressures students to come to school, even if feeling unwell.”

Some believe that in-person learning is unreliable due to staff shortages. “For the past week, half my teachers have been absent, leaving the students a worksheet to do and for us to figure out the rest,” Lam shared. “I've been struggling in these classes since I have no clue what to do or what points to focus on as the teachers aren't there to guide me.” Others believe that remote learning would be equally detrimental to students’ education. One anonymous freshman is a proponent for remote learning in this period, but acknowledges its drawbacks in terms of academic integrity. “If we were to go remote [again], students would be more reliant on the internet for information,” she said. “However, safety should [always] be the first priority.”

Sophomore Deangelo Poon feels differently, noting that remote learning, while safer in certain regards, doesn’t provide the same experience as in-person learning. “I was a freshman last year [in remote], so it was hard for me to make new friends and socialize with people,” he explained. “I also think that many of us would fall behind in classwork [since] it’s harder to learn from a computer screen.” Poon is less concerned about contracting COVID-19, noting that although the Omicron variant is more contagious, it is relatively mild, especially for vaccinated and boosted individuals.

Junior Luca Adeishvili believes that while it’s necessary to close NYC schools, remote learning will be detrimental to Stuyvesant’s academic experience. “It’s insanity to keep the schools open any longer, and despite how awful remote learning was for my and many others' mental health I still think it’s the best way to go,” he said. Adeishvili understands that neither alternative is favorable, reflecting on his experience with remote learning in previous years. “My participation grades dwindled [and] I found it difficult to grasp certain topics in some subjects because I wasn’t able to focus on the lessons during remote class,” he explained. Adeshvili also found the social experience to be quite limited in remote learning. “I remember how quiet breakout rooms always were, because nobody ever had the drive to do anything there,” he recalled. “The social element of school [was] completely gone.”

The debate between remote and in-person learning is more than a debate between health and education; there are several other factors to consider. For one, if schools were to transition to remote, many parents would be faced with the challenge of needing to watch over their children and also regularly attend work. However, keeping schools open for longer could also backfire, as a greater spike in cases could lead to a longer period of remote instruction in the future. At this point in time, neither option is perfect, or even close to it, and this is something that the Stuyvesant community, as well as all NYC public schools, must come to terms with. Mayor Adams, though understanding of the public’s concerns, is weary of returning to remote learning—even if temporarily—acknowledging that it was harmful to students’ education in previous years. In the weeks going forward, students, parents, and teachers may look toward a compromise as one’s current situation may differ from another’s, whether a remote option becomes available or not.