NEW YORK — Students across New York City walked out of their schools just before noon Tuesday to protest COVID-19 safety conditions in their classrooms.
It’s unclear how many students citywide joined in the social media-fueled protest, but at Brooklyn Technical High School, the city’s largest, an estimated 600 kids poured out into 18-degree temperatures to call attention to what they described as an unsafe and chaotic environment at their school with the ongoing viral surge driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.
“It doesn’t feel safe to be in school to be honest,” said Danny Mui, a sophomore at Brooklyn Tech. “In my classes, half the classes aren’t there. Some have COVID, some are afraid of COVID, and the school just isn’t doing anything about it.”
The walkout was driven by a series of social media posts that circulated Monday calling on city students to leave class at 11:52 am Tuesday in protest.
Social media activity documented scattered participation across boroughs and age groups, but it’s unclear how many students participated in all.
Some kids reported that administrators discouraged them from staging walkouts. Student attendance has already been far below normal levels, averaging just 69% over the past two weeks.
“We understand the concerns of our school communities during this crisis and wholeheartedly support civic engagement among New York City students,” said Department of Education spokeswoman Sarah Casanovas.
“We’ve doubled in-school testing and deployed 5 million rapid tests to quickly identify cases, stop transmission, and safely keep schools open. Student voice is key and we’ll continue to listen to and work closely with those most impacted by our decisions -- our students.”
Schools Chancellor David Banks tweeted Tuesday afternoon that he would meet with the leaders of the walkout.
Students outside Brooklyn Tech said the school’s massive size and crowding has made it tough to attend in-person classes safely.
“There’s no social distancing at all, the stairways are packed. There’s no point coming here if I’m going to get sick,” said one student who asked not to use her name.
Mayor Eric Adams and Banks have been forceful about the importance of keeping school buildings open during the pandemic, pointing to past evidence that COVID-19 spread in classrooms has been lower than in other settings and emphasizing that in-person school can be crucial to families without other options for childcare and food.
But schools across the city have confronted a wave of challenges in staying open, with teachers and students calling out sick in droves.
“Because of the recent surges, there’s a lot of teachers that are out. I had maybe four subs at once, we’re basically getting nothing done,” said a Brooklyn Tech student named Jacob, who asked to use only his first name.
The sheer volume of cases is also straining the school system’s ability to track and respond to infections -- and some Brooklyn Tech students called for stricter mitigation measures.
Coming to school every day feels like “a raffle type thing where ... it’s like ‘I hope I don’t get COVID today,’ said sophomore Daniel Chen.
A new DOE policy of distributing rapid tests to all students exposed to a COVID-positive classmate in school is good in theory, but has hit some roadblocks in practice, kids said.
“They give some students so much more than what they need, and some kids they don’t get it at all,” said Raida Hasan, a ninth-grader.
Several of the Brooklyn Tech students acknowledged that they suffered emotionally and academically during extended stretches of remote learning early in the pandemic, but argued that offering kids a temporary virtual option would help alleviate some of the current burden on schools and pupils.
“Last year when we had remote learning, my grades were bad, we basically didn’t learn anything,” said a freshman named Kelly, who asked to use just her first name. “But I think maybe hybrid learning, or two weeks off of school would be best.”