With COVID19 still active in Brooklyn, random weekly tests in the borough’s public schools have been the norm since December. But so have school building closures, whenever two unrelated cases are found. This has been particularly frustrating where more than one school shares the building, and all get closed for up to 10 days at a time, even when they share no common areas or teachers.
The policy, that the Department of Education (DOE) explains on their website, is as complex as is the detecting and tracing of COVID19. In simpler cases, if there’s one case in one classroom, that classroom itself closes and the students switch to remote learning while an investigation takes place. The classroom remains closed for 10 days while the students and staff who came into contact with the positive case are expected to quarantine.
But the policy gets more complicated based on where the cases are found, how the exposure happened, and whether the two cases are linked or not. For example, if two separate cases are found in two different classrooms, and are related, the classrooms with the cases are closed, and quarantining also happens for 10 days. Some members of that school community will also have to stay home and quarantine if they were also exposed to the virus at the same spot as the other two cases.
The complexity then increases if there are co-locating schools, or multiple schools occupying an entire building. According to the DOE, if there are at least two positive cases that are not related to each other, and the exposure happened outside of that building, the entire building closes and all schools in that building switch to remote learning for 10 days – even if one or more of those schools do not have any active cases.
“I can’t overstate how deeply disruptive this has been,” says Sandy Chum-Wu, the president of the PTO at The Academy of Talented Scholars (TAOTS) in Bensonhurst, which shares the building with a D75 school and the Brooklyn School of Inquiry at the Lucretia Marcigliano Campus on 50 Avenue P. “We all check our emails daily, even though the information that comes in is so inconsistent. We’ve had days where we’re notified at 7 pm whether our schools are open or closed the next day. It’s disruptive, frustrating, infuriating, all the superlatives you can think of.”
Another parent, Catherine Finn of Windsor Terrace, is also frustrated. Her eldest child attends K280, a PreK school that shares the Bishop Ford Complex with MS442 and Brooklyn Urban Garden School (BUGS, a charter school) at 500 19th Street. She does not understand why all three schools have to close in the event of two unrelated positive cases when neither of the schools interacts with each other on the campus.
“It’s a big complex,” Finn says. “They’re in separate wings, separate stairwells, separate bathrooms. There’s separate entrances. They’re very purposeful in keeping the populations separate; they’ve been very careful in keeping interactions separate.”
That was why Finn was surprised when K280 had to close along with MS 442 and BUGS this past Monday, two school days after middle school students returned to in-person learning. Two unlinked cases were found, and the entire campus is closed until early next week.
“I understand that health and safety are so important, and we want to keep it safe,” Finn explains. ”It just doesn’t make sense to me that the [middle school and PreK] populations are in a huge building that don’t interact at all, I don’t see where there’s a health or safety concern with COVID cases. I can see if it’s an elementary school, of course, those grades are interacting in some way. Maybe they’re on the playground together. But that’s not how it’s set up in this school. If they’re interacting, I get it. But they’re not interacting, so I don’t really see the reason behind making everyone go remote when it’s a separate group of people.”
The President of K280’s PTA, Christina Denardo, agrees. “There’s no common space. Everyone’s pretty much in a bubble. They’re in their classes all day long. I don’t know how one or two cases could really impact ours. Is the risk the same? I don’t know if this policy is up to date. I think it’s really time to re-evaluate the policy.”
Finn says some of the parents at the school are doing an email writing campaign to the Mayor’s Office and the DOE to get them to review their policy in regards to how the Bishop Ford Complex is set up to prevent the spread of COVID19.
Over in Bensonhurst, Alina Bitel, another parent whose son attends TAOTS, had to tell her son that he had to stay home again Thursday after positive cases were detected on the campus.
“My biggest concern is the emotional toll this is having,” Bitel says. “He loves school, he thrives on social interaction. He’s just devastated every time we tell him the school is closed.”
She has taken note of a Change.org petition that was created by parents on the Upper East Side, calling for an end to the “two unlinked cases rule”. This is different from what parents like Finn are doing at K280, where the lack of interaction leading to closures is their concern. But like Finn, even Bitel says the schools on her son’s campus do not interact with each other.
“No interactions between classrooms, no specialty classes or teachers, no gym, no lunch, and cafeteria,” she says. “With all of that in place, it is extremely unclear to me why, if there are two unrelated cases in the building, the entire building closes down. I was under the impression that the reason that was put in place, was that you don’t need to shut down the whole school, if there is a case or two.”
Despite the skepticism towards the policy, there are some Brooklyn educators and parents who support it. Annie Tan, who teaches special education, albeit remotely, for a Sunset Park elementary school that shares the building with another DOE elementary school, says that while she understands the parents’ frustrations, and the instability that comes with the closures, the policy makes sense.
“I hear the parents very much,” says Tan, whose school has been closed more than it has been open for 2021. “But the instability is because our community transmission rates are really high now. Even though our rates are dropping right now, we still have to be vigilant. It’s not like children don’t get COVID.”
As of last week, the Southern Brooklyn zip code of 11229, which includes Homecrest, Gerritsen Beach, and Sheepshead Bay, has the highest number of COVID19 cases with a 12.44% positive rate. Even the nearby zip code of 11214, which has Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, and Gravesend, has an 8.31% positive rate.
Tan points out that in her building, the two schools share bathrooms and the teachers have been keeping the windows open even in the cold weather, because of poor ventilation in many of the schools. She also points out the variants of COVID19 that are breaking out worldwide, including one here in New York City.
“We don’t know how contagious they are yet, and there are multiple variants” she adds. “It is not time to let up our vigilance now.”
Another parent, who sends their children to the Lucretia Marcigliano Campus, anonymously contacted Bklyner, explaining that while they get the frustration over the closures, they feel they are necessary.
“Although, they might not be in contact with each other,” the email reads. “I don’t know the exact setup of the school. For instance are staircases exclusive to one school? If so, does everybody obey the rules when having to go up and down the building? What about the cafeteria and other building staffers? They’re not exclusive to a school, but the whole building. They probably aren’t in contact with the students, but they have a right to feel safe in the building too especially with middle schools opening up. I understand and rather be safe.”
Antonia Ferraro, the Co-Vice President of Community Education Council 15, told Bklyner, “As a parent, I think less about who I’m interacting with than with whom I’m sharing air.”
In response, Catherine Finn says, “I’m not an expert in terms of airflow; I’m not a scientist when it comes to those things. But they’re separated when it comes to walls and doors, in a very large building. But if someone were to show me the science of how that would be dangerous, yes, of course, I would agree. But that information has not been provided.”
Even Sandy Chum-Wu agrees, pointing out that the schools at Lucretia Marcigliano Campus are on separate floors. “They don’t congregate in the halls, they don’t move from classroom to classroom. I just don’t feel like it’s a high risk. I’m not sure the science is there, that’s my gut reaction.”
Chum-Wu also points out that in order for schools to remain open, parents, students, and staff have to practice social distancing and wear masks outside of the school. She explains that there’s a chance some do not adhere to the CDC guidelines which “defeats the purpose” of trying to contain the virus, and is unfair to the three schools on campus.
“We’ll survive the testing round, and then hear hours later that there were two cases, and it wasn’t our school,” she says, adding that she explains to her kids that school closed because people “weren’t following the rules.”
Chum-Wu also says she would like to appeal the city’s policy. But even though she is on TAOTS School Leadership Team and is President of their Parent Teacher Organization, she is not sure where to appeal, though she did sign that Change.org petition.
“I often feel like these things fall of deaf ears,” she says. “I think they are aware that it creates a heap of inconvenience.”
As of Thursday afternoon, the Lucretia Marcigliano Campus may open again tomorrow, until further notice. The Bishop Ford Complex is set to open again on Monday, March 8th.
Nathaniel Styer, the Deputy Press Secretary of the DOE, says, “We have the gold standard in safety measures and respond quickly to positive cases in order to stop any potential spread within the school building community, which is what we did when multiple unlinked cases occurred on the Bishop Ford Campus. We are assisting the entire school community to ensure they reopen safely on the 8th.”
UPDATE: Since the story was published an hour ago we have learned that the Lucretia Marcigliano Campus will not reopen for in person school untill March 15.
Bklyner reached out to the Brooklyn School of Inquiry’s PTO and MS 442’s PTA for comments, but did not receive a response at the time of publication. The Executive Director of BUGS was unable to comment as well.