During omicron, NYC schools feel dull, lonely, and scary

I’m a high school sophomore who hated learning from home. But right now remote is the better option.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

I’m a sophomore at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn. I learned remotely all last year and hated it. Still, I made the best of the situation by keeping my camera on and “going to class” every day. It wasn’t how I had expected to begin high school, and it took a toll on my mental health.  

This past fall, I was super happy to resume in-person learning and got right into the swing of classes and clubs. I met people whom I had only known as boxes on a screen, and I had the opportunity to take more advanced courses, which quelled some of my boredom in school. 

But with the rise in omicron cases, in-person learning is doing my classmates and me more harm than good. Mayor Eric Adams, just a couple of weeks into his term, says New York City families need schools to stay open, that it’s safer this way. As someone who has spent the past couple of weeks inside a New York City public school building, I’m here to say that we cannot afford to continue with this version of school. It’s time to go remote. 

Penelope Day (Courtesy photo)

I say this, understanding that not all students have stable internet access at home, that families rely on schools for meals, and that many parents cannot afford to stay home should school go remote. But why not leave campuses open for remote learning from inside the school building?

To help you understand why a remote option is necessary, let me tell you about what the school day looks like now. There are some 3,700 Murrow students, and about one-third of them are absent, largely because they have COVID or are quarantining at home. The building feels empty and lonely. 

I’ve had ‘free periods’ in some classes and minimal supervision in others. 

Meanwhile, my classmates at home are not receiving enough instruction, and they are going to be drowning in work when they come back to school. Although teachers are supposed to update Google Classroom daily, some of them don’t even do it weekly. Without remote learning, these students are at risk of falling behind. I worry about this, should I, too, have to stay home.

It isn’t just students who are absent. Two of my teachers are quarantined, and a third was out all last week. We are left with substitutes and busy work, with few opportunities to collaborate with peers. Prior to the current omicron surge, I received valuable, collaborative lessons every day. Now, school revolves around reviewing what we already learned (that is, no new content) and meaningless worksheets. I’ve had “free periods” in some classes and minimal supervision in others. One day last week, our school was so short-staffed that whole classes were sent to the auditorium, where there was a short presentation on dance.

In school, I find it hard to focus on even my pared-down studies when I’m stressed about transmitting COVID to my three severely immunocompromised parents. I can’t rely on the daily health screening everyone at Murrow is supposed to fill out. Does anyone really expect teenagers to read the detailed list of symptoms every day before school? There are even browser extensions that can fill out the health questionnaire for you. 

If absent classmates and a lack of meaningful work weren’t enough, extracurriculars — clubs, rehearsals, tutoring, and more — are canceled. Of course, it makes sense to prevent COVID from spreading, but it also means going to school without the activities that have become integral to our high school experience. For me, that means no mock trial and only virtual versions of Key Club and National Honor Society meetings. Without anything to do after school, it’s right back on the subway after the bell rings. Crushed between students and strangers, I feel like I’m holding my breath for the entire ride. Given my parents’ increased risk, we still follow unusually rigorous precautions, such as showering when we get home and wiping down our groceries and phones. It’s overwhelming.

The education department is choosing among imperfect options, but this current version of school is too compromised, too lonely, and too frightening to be worth it. Everything that made my school experience educational — and enjoyable — is slowly being stripped away.

Penelope Day is a sophomore at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn.