Summer School Just Started, And Scores Of City Classrooms Are Already Closed Due to COVID

New York City’s expanded summer school aims to help kids prepare for in-person learning this fall. The free program kicked off last week and 200,000 students are participating. But in a sign of challenges ahead, more than 80 classrooms are already in quarantine because of positive COVID-19 cases among teachers or students. 

City protocol says any class with a positive case has to go remote for 10 days. Some parents worry that sticking with this closure rule will mean more disruption this fall, and say the city should consider changing it.  But city health officials said the closures, along with masks, testing, and social distancing, help keep schools safe and are likely to stay in place.

“Our classroom quarantine policy was a key part of our layered approach to preventing the spread of COVID-19 in schools,” city health commissioner Dave Chokshi said on Thursday. He added that he expects “testing as well as isolation and quarantine … will continue to be a key part of our approach going forward.” 

Previously, the city relied on a two-case trigger for school closures. But that came under intense fire from parents last winter and spring, as school after school shuttered for weeks at a time, causing constant disruptions to students’ schedules and leaving parents scrambling for childcare. Multiple scientists criticized the policy, which did not follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines. The mayor changed the school closure threshold in the spring, but the protocol for classroom closures remains. 

According to the education department, classroom closures actually refer to more than physical classrooms. The agency said the term includes any group of students or staff who are close contacts to a confirmed case and are quarantining, including a member of the facilities team. 

The case rate in schools remains extremely low, with 0.12% positivity within the pool of randomly tested students and staff. As of Friday, the citywide seven-day average positivity rate was 1.4%; officials eyeing the threat of the delta variant especially amongst unvaccinated populations.

The education department said routine surveillance testing has identified 12 cases in summer school so far encompassing seven students and five staff members over the past two weeks, and there will be more information on closure policies in the coming weeks. 

But Dr. Elissa Perkins, Director of Emergency Medicine Infectious Disease Management at Boston Medical Center, said classroom closures are unnecessary if other mitigation strategies like masks and social distancing are in place. “I think it’s extreme,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the right decision to close a classroom just because of one case.” 

Perkins said data shows schools have been both “amazingly safe and necessary environments.” She worries classroom closures lead to other, potentially more dangerous challenges by threatening consistency, socialization, and education for kids; and making it more difficult for parents to return to work.

Benjamin Linas, professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Boston University, called the 10-day classroom closure “over-sensitive” and “too much.” He said when there’s a positive case, there should be an investigation and contact tracing. Quarantines may be necessary for kids who are close together without masks for an extended period of time, per the CDC’s definition of close contacts, but not simply because they’re in the same room. “I think we need to be more precise,” he said. 

However, Dr. Leana Wen, emergency physician and professor at George Washington University, said many parents may prefer to be informed if there is a positive case in a class and choose to quarantine their kids. 

“This is an extremely complicated issue,” she said. “Different parents are going to come to different conclusions about the level of risk they can tolerate. … I do think it’s important to err on the side of caution. Even though children are less likely to be severely affected than adults, they can still become ill, and even if they are only mildly symptomatic they can have long-term consequences.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance for schools last week, emphasizing an urgency to get students back to schools, and relaxing some recommendations around social distancing and masks. It advised students and staff to remain three-feet apart when possible and said vaccinated individuals should not have to wear masks. It maintained language that students in a classroom should not be considered close contacts who need to quarantine if they were wearing masks and social distancing. City and state officials said they’re still reviewing the guidance.

Speaking on the Brian Lehrer Show Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the number of summer school kids in quarantine is small compared to the number served in the expanded program, which was open to all interested students to help them catch up academically from the disruptions of the pandemic. 

“We’ve got a handful of classrooms that had to quarantine compared to 200,000 kids in Summer Rising,” he said. “It’s still a very rare thing in our public school settings, and we’re two months away from the opening of school so we certainly have time to make adjustments.”

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