NYC schools strategy: test more, but keep classrooms open

A student plays while waiting outside the COVID-19 testing room at Public School 121 in the Bronx on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, the first day of the school year. New York City will introduce weekly coronavirus testing at all public schools starting next week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday, Sept 20, 2021, as officials try to strengthen safety protocols. (Anna Watts/The New York Times)
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday that New York City would take two new steps to address fears over the full reopening of schools: require weekly coronavirus testing of unvaccinated students and relax quarantine rules to keep more students in classrooms.

But the mayor resisted calls for a vaccine mandate for students, even as Pfizer-BioNTech moved toward offering the vaccine to children ages 5-11 years old.

The city’s latest policy changes get at the heart of de Blasio’s strategy for schools as a city that was once the global epicenter of the pandemic confronts the delta variant of the coronavirus. New York City was the first major school system to reopen last year, and de Blasio is determined to keep students in classrooms as much as possible this school year.

De Blasio believes that schools are safe, that officials can isolate virus cases and that families will choose to vaccinate their children voluntarily. In many ways, he is staking his legacy on whether the vast majority of the city’s 1 million public school students return to classrooms and whether city officials can prevent a large number of those students and teachers from getting sick.

De Blasio on Monday repeated his concerns that a vaccine mandate for students, like a plan in Los Angeles for students ages 12 and older, could prompt some families to keep their children at home. He has also refused to offer a remote learning option.

“I believe fundamentally the goal is to get our kids in school for the foreseeable future,” de Blasio said. “The best way to do that is to welcome all kids while constantly working to improve the levels of vaccination.”

The mayor noted that more than 70 percent of students ages 12-17 had received at least one dose of the vaccine.

Both the new testing and quarantine rules mirror recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unvaccinated students will no longer have to quarantine after having close contact with a student who tested positive, as long as they were masked and kept 3 feet apart. The city previously required all unvaccinated close contacts of a student who tested positive to quarantine for 10 days, leading to frequent disruption as classrooms shut.

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the teachers union, praised the decision to increase testing but criticized the new quarantine rules. He said it was unrealistic to believe that students were always wearing masks properly or staying physically distanced.

“Maybe in the mayor’s universe, all children keep their distance, wear their masks correctly and leave them on all day, but in the real world of our schools, this just isn’t so, particularly in the many schools that are overcrowded,” Mulgrew said in a statement.

On Sunday, Mulgrew had called on de Blasio to conduct weekly surveillance testing in schools, instead of the current policy of testing students every other week. The city will test 10% of unvaccinated students who have signed a testing consent form at every school each week.

The new rules are set to take effect Sept 27, the same day that a vaccine mandate for teachers and other school staff is expected to go into effect. Some health experts criticized the mayor’s plan, arguing that officials were not testing enough of the school population and calling for rapid testing. Others applauded the mayor for getting rid of quarantine rules that felt arbitrary.

Elga Castro, a parent whose daughter attends an elementary school in Washington Heights, welcomed the new rules and said she hoped they will keep classrooms open and safe.

“What keeps classrooms closed are quarantine rules more than testing,” she said. “Every time my daughter’s school closed, we would quarantine and test, and no one would be positive.”

Castro, who is part of a group of parents who fought to keep schools open, said she was looking forward to when younger students are able to get the vaccine.

“I’m more than happy to vaccinate my kid the same day,” she said.

On the first day of school last week, the preliminary attendance rate was just over 82 percent — lower than past years. Before the pandemic, first-day attendance rates hovered around 90 percent. De Blasio has not said how many students have returned and said the city would give more complete data in the coming weeks.

One school, PS 79 in East Harlem, was closed Monday and had transitioned to fully remote learning for 10 days, according to the city’s COVID-19 case map website. More than 400 classrooms were closed.

Annie Tan, a special education teacher in Brooklyn, called the new quarantine rules reckless and said they could lead to a rise in cases. Some parents might not feel comfortable sending students to school after one of their classmates tests positive for the virus, she said.

“In terms of routine, sure, it’s more stable, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe,” she said.

De Blasio, a Democrat with less than four months left in office, is the first mayor in decades whose children attended and graduated from public schools, and his most popular achievement was universal prekindergarten. He views the reopening of schools as crucial to address inequality and has lamented how poor families struggled the most with remote learning during the pandemic.

He repeated Monday that the city would not offer a remote learning option except for schools that had to close entirely.

“The chancellor and I fundamentally believe that our kids need to be in school,” he said. “That’s why there is not a broad remote option in place.”

The schools chancellor, Meisha Porter, said that more than 78 percent of Education Department employees were vaccinated. She said the city had recently hired 5,200 new teachers and did not expect any staffing shortages next week when the mandate begins.

“We gave out over 3,000 vaccines to students and staff on campus over the first few days of school,” she said. “We’re excited about that, and we think we’re moving in the right direction.”

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