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After closing last November, New York City high schools have reopened for in-person instruction. While high schools in West Harlem have welcomed students back, many community members have expressed concern over safety measures to protect students, teachers, and their families from COVID-19.

Not all teachers have been vaccinated and students ages 16 and older will not be eligible to receive the vaccine until April 6. In addition, schools that do not have access to outdoor spaces will be put at a disadvantage when it comes to complying with social distancing measures compared to those with access to open school grounds and nearby parks. However, Deirdre McIntosh-Brown and Shaneeka Wilson, co-chairs of the Youth, Education, & Libraries Committee of Manhattan Community Board 9, expressed hope given that most students and teachers will likely become vaccinated in the upcoming weeks. The board is a local advisory that represents West Harlem and the surrounding community.

After a spike in COVID-19 cases last winter, all New York City public schools closed and transitioned to virtual learning. While elementary schools reopened in December and middle schools reopened in February, high schools did not open until March 22. All 488 public high schools are currently open, with approximately half of them providing in-person instruction five days per week and half of them providing hybrid instruction. Only students who opted for in-person learning last fall are able to return to schools as of now, but other students can indicate whether they would like to opt for in-person instruction at the next opportunity.

McIntosh-Brown felt a better option for schools would have been to ease into five-days-a-week instruction by starting out from a hybrid format and then progressing into a full-time in-person learning schedule. She also expressed doubt at the effectiveness of in-person learning partly because many teachers are still choosing to teach remotely, which has created learning difficulties for students learning in person.

Although classrooms in which the teachers are not physically present have proctors monitoring the students, teachers leading classes virtually have the added task of trying to engage students both online and in the classroom, McIntosh-Brown said.

In addition, McIntosh-Brown and Wilson underscored that many parents were apprehensive about in-person learning because not all students or teachers have been vaccinated.

New York City teachers have been eligible to receive the vaccine since January but are not required to be vaccinated in order to teach. Many high school students were also not eligible to receive the vaccine at the time New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the reopening of high schools.

COVID-19 safety measures for schools consist of weekly testing of a randomly selected pool of 20 percent of students and staff, eating lunch in classrooms, wearing face coverings, and following social distancing protocols.

However, Wilson and McIntosh-Brown also expressed doubt about the feasibility of high school students adhering to social distancing measures.

“We’re really dealing with small adults. And so it’s not quite as simple to keep them separated,” Wilson said. “They want to see each other. That was the point of them going back to school.”

Wilson also noted that social distancing is especially difficult for students in schools that do not have access to outdoor spaces.

“I think about half of the students are returning, so it’s going to be much more manageable to travel outside with 10 teenagers and have a lesson in the park. But if you don’t have access to a nice park or outdoor area, then that’s not an option. Just having that option provides them with a safe and fun way to kind of engage in the lesson,” Wilson said.

Overall, neither Wilson nor McIntosh-Brown foresees major changes to the safety measures in place for in-person learning, but a major game changer could come as more students and teachers become vaccinated.

“They are using the same safety measures that they used at the beginning, in the middle of this pandemic, and it did not seem to stop anything. … I’m not certain why it will stop anything now, especially if everyone has not received their full vaccine,” Wilson said.

For those students who have been currently attending in-person classes, Wilson noted that in-person learning has given an opportunity for students to see friends.

“[The kids] are very happy. I see there are some high schoolers in my area and I see them, they’re very happy to see each other,” she said.

For many students, especially those in CB9 who are more likely to come from low-income households, virtual learning has posed difficulties. Many students whose parents are at work during school hours may not have the support to supplement virtual classes. They also may not have access to Wi-Fi, a computer, or a safe and quiet environment to study.

In a Spectator article, David Fanning, principal of District 6′s A. Philip Randolph Campus High School, noted the difficulties of online learning for students who do not have the resources to learn effectively online.

“If you’re from a family where people are dealing with a lot of stuff,” he said. “School is a safe place. For a lot of kids, it’s a place where they don’t have a lot of other responsibilities. They can be a teenager. Those kids are really missing out because they don’t have a safe place to go.”

Although students may now have the opportunity to learn in person, the risks presented by COVID-19may prevent many West Harlem students from returning to school. McIntosh-Brown emphasized that for those who tend to live in multigenerational households and for students within Community District 9 who are displaced and living in shelters with family, the choice of learning virtually is more about protecting loved ones than about the tradeoff of learning at home.

“If you’ve got an older person or if you have someone who is at risk, you may not want to go back [to school] even as a teenager. You may be thinking, ‘I don’t want to bring this home to someone,’” McIntosh-Brown said.

Although schools have not yet outlined a clear plan as to how students who choose to opt into in-person learning will be joining students who are already learning in person, administrators are trying to figure out how an increase in the number of students can be accommodated in the safest way possible.

Staff writer Victoria Choe can be contacted at victoria.choe@columbiaspectator.com. Follow Spectator on Twitter at @ColumbiaSpec.

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