Parents struggle with back-to-work season amid school closures

“I can’t be at the show and do this at the same time,” she said.

Although the city’s public schools opened their doors to nearly 1 million children on Monday, they have already swung shut again on students in 58 classrooms because of a Covid-19 rule the city adopted for its youngest learners, even though state and federal rules do not require the quarantine when children wear masks all day.

That leaves around 1,450 students and up to double the number of parents on shaky middle ground between a city that wants employees back to work and a school system that seems to be communicating that normal life is still simply too dangerous to resume. 

The current school closures touch a tiny percentage of enrolled students. But they signal to the working parents of a half-million kids in this age group that disrupted work schedules will continue, even at a volatile time for the city’s economic recovery.

The city still lacks 500,000 positions from its pre-pandemic employment levels, and mothers of kids under 13 may be among those missing from the ranks: Nationally, their employment was down 4% in August, even as employment rates rose for all other groups of parents, according to an analysis of the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey by Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed. 

“It just seems like there is supposed to be a moment where we all go back,” Shalant said. “New York going back to work only works if our children are somewhere where they don’t require us to be the teachers.” 

Despite officials’ fears about the Delta variant, no one under age 17 appears to have been hospitalized or died in the city from the disease during the summer, according to the city’s tracker. 

Throughout New York state, 32 children under the age of 20 have died with Covid-19 in the year and a half since the beginning of the pandemic. In 2017 and 2018, the most recent years for which all-cause mortality data is available, 1,768 young people in this age group died each year, which would put pandemic-related deaths at less than 1% of all deaths.

Still, federal and local officials have asked schools to follow a series of hygiene steps. Mayor BIll de Blasio’s office has said that the elementary classroom quarantine policy is necessary for public health.

“When children are not yet eligible for vaccination, that does tip the balance more strongly toward ensuring that we aggressively try to break any chains of transmission with classrooms and schools,” Commissioner of Health, Dave Chokshi said.

Chokshi has said that close to 100% of residents must be vaccinated before Covid-19 stops posing a threat to the city. While older children can come back to school with negative tests, elementary school youngsters cannot. The city did not respond to a question about why there was no “test to stay” process.

In the past, strict quarantine policies did not seem to have an effect on disease spread. 

In the fall of 2020, more than 36,000 children who were deemed “close contacts” to someone with a positive test and would therefore need to quarantine, just 191, or 0.5%, eventually tested positive for Covid-19, according to a study by Dr. Jay Varma, an adviser to the city, that was published in the medical journal Pediatrics. During the summer, as the Delta wave came and went, some city parents had their children in camp, maskless and healthy, to no ill effect. 

For elementary school parents with full-time jobs, especially those that can not be done remotely, the dozens of closures in the first two days of school signal another difficult year. 

“This is a nightmare all over again,” said Hien Sosa, a nurse with two children whose husband is also an essential worker without any flexibility in his schedule.

The only exception to the stress may be among employees of the city itself. 

The city, which has required that employees come back to work full time this week, was the only employer of many surveyed by Crain’s that had created an official provision for its workers suffering the consequences of its schools policy, allowing them up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave, maxing out at two-thirds of their salary, or $200 a day, if they can prove that they are needed to take care of a child relegated by the Department of Education to their home.

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Shalant has no such luxury. She said she would ask another parent to watch her child while she was at the trade show and repay the favor the following day, when the show was over. 

“My work will suffer to manage the situation,” she said. 

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