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New York City high school students stage walkout, citing inadequate COVID measures

A school bus moves along a street in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Sep. 29, 2020.Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg

Students walked out of schools across New York City around lunchtime on Tuesday to protest what many called inadequate protections against the coronavirus - and demand an option to learn remotely until they improve.

It's the latest flash point in an increasingly tense national debate about in person versus remote learning, as the United States grapples with an unprecedented surge in coronavirus cases driven by the omicron variant.

Those who took part in the walkout, which appeared to have been organized by a group of students on social media, called for more robust measures, including more testing and better health screening measures to identify positive cases. In the short-term, the students wrote on Instagram that they seek a return to remote or blended learning.

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As one Brooklyn Technical High School junior told the New York Post: "We don't feel safe at school."

It's not clear how many students took part in the walkout, which began at 11:52 a.m. local time, and affected some of the city's largest high schools, including Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant. According to preliminary data from New York City's Department of Education, around 82% of Brooklyn Tech students and 86% of Stuyvesant students attended class Tuesday.

In New York, both Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul and Democratic Mayor Eric Adams have staunchly defended in-person instruction. Adams has called schools "the safest place for our children" and argued that remote learning hurts students' development, while Hochul's plan to "Keep Schools Open" provides for increased testing capacity to allow students who are exposed to the coronavirus but who test negative to stay in school.

New York City students and staff are not the only ones expressing frustration with the way some schools have handled the rise in coronavirus cases driven by omicron.

Students from the Oakland Unified School District threatened to boycott classes starting on Monday unless their district met their demands for more remote learning and stricter measures to mitigate virus transmission.

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Meanwhile, Chicago public schools canceled classes for five school days in a row, as teachers faced off against city officials over coronavirus protocols. Chicago schools will reopen Wednesday after the teachers union and the city reached an agreement that will set forth criteria for closing schools with outbreaks, provide KN95 masks for educators and students, and allow teachers the option to take an unpaid leave of absence if an employee's medical condition puts them at higher risk of severe illness.

Strikes, petitions, walkouts and sickouts all are part of a broader national conversation around the role of schools in this pandemic that is taking place in the context of an upcoming midterm election where school closures could become a key issue.

The Biden administration has attempted to walk a fine line between alienating teachers unions, whose members have been on the front lines of the pandemic, and parents, who after two years of the coronavirus are still juggling child care with remote work and worry that their children are falling behind.

The White House has pledged to send schools 10 million free coronavirus tests per month to help them stay open.

The head of New York City's Department of Education, Chancellor David C. Banks, on Twitter suggested he would meet with the organizers of the student walkout. But the main social media account coordinating the walkout said that none of the students in charge of it "have received any messages" from him.

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Banks's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post.

On Tuesday, the city reported 8,670 coronavirus cases among students and staff and no classroom or school closure as a result of the coronavirus. However, a reported lack of testing has made it unclear how many children in New York City schools have the coronavirus, with students taking to Reddit and other forums to describe classrooms overrun by positive cases.

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The Washington Post’s Laura Meckler and Andrew Jeong contributed to this report.