Schools in New York City shut down in March 2020 under intense pressure from public health experts and teachers, among others, after weeks of defiance from the mayor and other top officials. Now with the city breaking records in COVID infection as it endures the omicron variant nearly two years later, schools are staying open, with factions that eventually united in 2020 pulling in different directions.
Jeff Palladino, the principal at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx, wants his school to stay open no matter what. Nearby zip codes in the Bronx registered test positivity rates as high as 47 percent this month, but he argues keeping kids in schools and mitigating the risk is what they really need. I called him to explain why. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Aymann Ismail: Walk me through the school shutdown in 2020, what you remember from the very beginning, and what’s been happening with online instruction and in-person teaching at your school since then.
Jeff Palladino: That’s a book, man. New York City doesn’t close schools for anything. I’ve been in the system for a long time. You’d get eight inches of snow and we’re still going in. So to think that it was going to close the school back in 2020, I would think you were crazy. It was March of 2020. Things started to get a little hot in terms of a lot of cases and stuff. We had a Friday morning, there were a lot of rumors of closure. We had a Friday meeting with the chancellor at the time and the mayor, and they said, “Listen, we’re not closing schools. We’re not doing it.” There was lots of tension. I had a lot of people out sick that week, which is not a usual thing for my staff. I thought maybe they just got flu. We didn’t know that much about it back then, obviously.
I sent an email out to the staff and said, “Listen, we’re in on Monday. These rumors were just rumors; we’re not closing.” Then Sunday morning, in the afternoon, there was a press conference, and they decided to shut down for three days, and go fully remote on the third day. We were like, “How do we prepare our school and student body to do this in three days?”
Was there some backup plan that went into effect?
No. There was no plan. I work in the South Bronx. The poorest Congressional district in the country. Not all my families have computers and wifi. We were very concerned about our student body not being with us for a week or two weeks. We wanted to make sure we didn’t lose kids. The first thing we did when we knew we were going to close was updating all of our contact lists. I asked teachers to make sure they have the kids’ numbers, the parents’ numbers, email addresses, the baker or butcher’s number that can get in touch with the next-door neighbor—as much contact information as possible, because we don’t want to lose kids over the next week or two weeks that we’re closed down. We spent the first day doing all that. The second day we spent moving all of our classwork to Google classroom. We got our Zoom and Google Meet links ready and emailed it out to our kids. And on the third day, which was Wednesday, we had all of our kids come into school to give every kid a computer. We gave hotspots to kids who needed hotspots. We gave bags from our food pantry because a lot of our kids’ main source of nutrition is the school. We gave cleaning supplies, heaters, blankets to hold them over for two weeks. And then we went remote on the Thursday.
What was it like when school eventually returned to in-person learning?
When we came back in September of 2020, we’d been through so much. There was a remote option, so not all the kids had to come in. This was before vaccines were available. So some staff were remote, too. The deal with the Department of Education then was that when the positive tests hit 3 percent in the city, we were going to go remote again. And so we hit 3 percent by November, and we went remote again. When you compare it to the positivity rates in our area now, up to 47 percent, it’s a different time.
Were the kids different when they got back?
Listen. The kids are the kids. They’re teenagers. They see each other, they’re goofing on each other, laughing. Thank God for the kids. Though I do feel bad for them—I wouldn’t want to be a teenager during this time. It’s not a lot of fun. It’s depressing. There’s a certain level of anxiety I think that you didn’t see before, but generally, kids are pretty resilient. And my teachers do a lot of focus on trying to make school enjoyable and fun and engaging, questioning kids’ thoughts on controversial issues. I know there are concerns about kids, for the fact that they had to wear masks, and I’m always yelling at kids to put their masks on. Besides that, in the building when the kids are there, it feels normal. They’re hanging out with each other, they’re playing UNO, they go to the basketball game, they want to be normal teenagers. It’s hard for them. I got a teenager myself in high school and it’s hard being a teenager right now, but you remember what it’s like being a teenager. All you care about is being a teenager.
But I don’t want to be insensitive either. There are a lot of kids who have family members who have died. We’ve had a lot of impact from coronavirus on our kids’ lives. I’m not trying to be glib about it either. But when you see them walking through the hallways, they’re goofing on each other. They’re kids. They just want to be normal.
Were you advocating for a return to school after it shut down the first time?
Yeah. We pushed hard. Learning is a community sport. Remote learning was a Band Aid. And we learned some interesting things from remote learning, but there’s no comparison—being in the school and being part of a community in a building, doing things together, you can’t compare it.
What happened when cases crept up again? Were you worried about safety? And what about with omicron?
We were all back in September, and to be honest, with the first wave of delta, we did a pretty good job of mitigating factors and keeping infections really isolated in the school. The first year when we went back in person, we were back for 11 weeks and we only had one case. And then we had a very robust summer school, like 250 kids. Our students do Summer Youth Employment and they all came back for that. And we only had one case during the whole summer.
With omicron, there’s no way to keep it low. It’s so transmissible that we’re going to have cases and we’re going to have a lot of them. There’s no way around it. So the best thing to do is try to get as many kids vaccinated as possible so if and when they do get infected, the symptoms are not bad and they just do all the other mitigating factors to try to control it as much as possible.
Are you able to keep staff in the building?
We’ve had a lot of staff who’ve tested positive, but we also budgeted a lot of extra staff anyway. There’s a lot of coverage going on, but we’re 100 percent covering everything in house. If I have to bring lunch into the classrooms, I’ll do it myself. We’ve been self-sufficient. No one’s coming to help you. You know what I mean? We got to.
Have you been hearing from parents or teachers or anyone else who are making the case that the school should shut down to mitigate omicron because it’s so transmissible?
Of course. I 100 percent understand being concerned about your child’s health. Being concerned about sending them to school, I get that. No one asked to be in a pandemic. It’s a difficult and confusing time. My job is to help educate people, but also be understanding. One of our parents said, “Listen, I have four kids. I’m a single parent. I can’t send my daughter to school because I can’t afford for her to get sick or them get me sick.” What am I going to say? “No, you’re wrong”? I get that.
But I don’t run the buses and I don’t run the trains. I can’t guarantee your child’s not going to get infected; I can’t. I’ll do my best to make sure she’s not, but I understand where the mom comes from. That doesn’t get me upset at all. I totally get it. Listen, if they decided to close us, I would understand that and whatever, let’s go, move forward. So I’m not here to criticize. I get it. I totally understand that position.
What about teachers? Has your relationship with them changed?
I think we look around at each other and shake our heads like, “Do you believe we’re going through this? This is crazy.” But especially since omicron, where a bunch of my teachers got sick and tested positive over the break, and people are covering for each other and contacting their kids and doing tracking and tracing, they’re still teaching. The only thing that’s changed is my admiration of the people that I work with. People are scared. Some people have young children at home. Some people live with their elderly parents. Some people have immunocompromised family members. That’s real. And especially within the last couple of weeks when omicron really went nuts, people are moving forward in the dark step by step. No one knows what to do, but they’re moving forward, and that’s amazing.
There was this post on Reddit that was going around from a New York City public school student describing chaos at his school. It went viral and Slate talked to the student. What did you make of that?
It came from Stuyvesant. I read it. That’s the perspective of one person. I don’t know what the real story is. From what I’ve read and seen, there are schools that had a lot of staffing issues. And if you have a tremendous amount of staffing issues, I can understand that you have to make decisions based on that. Like my daughter’s school, when she didn’t have a sub, that put her in a study hall for an hour with a bunch of other kids. That is not my situation at my school right now, thankfully—we have enough adults to cover classrooms. But I understand some schools are going through really hard times of people being sick. So that’s unfortunate. As a school leader, you want students to find their school day meaningful. And I think if I remember the one correct thing about the post, when the kid had his regular teacher in third period, he was excited. He was excited that he had a regular class. Which is all we’re trying to do. These are outstanding circumstances.
I’ve seen in Newark, where I live, that some teachers are protesting against the vaccine. Are you facing anything like that in your school? Are there anti-vax students, teachers? Are you yourself encouraging people to take the vaccine?
Well, every New York City employee, if you’re currently working is the Department of Education, is vaccinated. So you might be anti-vaccine, but you’re vaccinated if you’re working right now. 100 percent of the staff right now working is vaccinated at my school and that’s New York City Department of Education rule.
We’re encouraging vaccines, 100 percent. I think we have 460 kids. We’re at like 260, 270 and maybe a tiny bit more vaccinated. We’re a community school with an organization called Children’s Aid Society. And they do everything for us from free eyeglasses for kids and on. Currently, they’re testing and offering vaccination boosters at our school right now. They were there today from 8 to 5, they’ll be there tomorrow, and they’ll be there on Wednesday. Teenagers are eligible now for a booster because they’re about six months out from their last shot. And not every kid will do it, but I think omicron has encouraged more people to do it than before because so many people are testing positive.
What is the single most important thing that we could do moving forward to help students in this new phase of the Omicron and COVID?
Our goal is to continue to push kids’ intellectual thinking and challenging work to do in school that is engaging and thoughtful and that they’re interested in and they care about and to push them. But also to be understanding that they’re going through something that is generational—be understanding that they’re going through a hard, difficult time right now, too. Schools should be fun and energizing. It should be a place where kids feel happy to be there. And that’s challenging during a pandemic, but that’s what we should be striving to do, to give them a place where they wake up in the morning and they want to go to in person. We have to make sure schools are places where kids feel like they belong, and that what they think matters. So that’s what I’m trying to do as best I can.