NYC Public Schools Will Only Conduct Random COVID Tests On Unvaccinated Students This Fall

New York City plans to randomly test 10% of each school’s unvaccinated population twice a month this school year to prevent COVID-19 transmission, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter announced Thursday.

The updated testing strategy is considerably dialed back from the previous protocol that held weekly testing of each school’s entire school population, but it does fall in line with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This year, the city is also not setting a threshold number of COVID cases to close a school. Instead, the city will only consider closures if there is “widespread transmission” in a school, the Department of Education said. Last year, schools closed whenever there were two or four reported cases of COVID-19 in different classrooms within a week that were traced to a known exposure inside the school.

Emily Rubinstein, a parent of two children, ages 8 and 4, said she objects to shuttering an entire elementary school classroom when there’s just one positive case. She noted that CDC guidance only calls for quarantining close contacts within classrooms if the students weren’t consistently wearing masks when exposed. She said any closure will be especially difficult for her 8-year-old son.

“He has a very hard time with Zoom,” she said. “He has OT [Occupational Therapy], he’s dyslexic. And what we’re doing is giving him less of an education.

Now, school closures will be on a “case by case basis,” de Blasio said, but a summary released by the DOE did not specify a definition for widespread transmission. The CDC doesn’t offer a specific cutoff for unplanned school closures, but all five boroughs are currently experiencing more than 100 cases per 100,000 residents. The CDC classifies this as a “high” rate of community transmission.

The city also plans to limit the disruption of classroom closures and quarantines with updated protocols, including acknowledging that quarantined students will receive remote learning.

The unvaccinated populations in city schools will likely be comprised mostly of students. All education employees, including school-based staff, will be required to take vaccines. But kids under 12 are still ineligible, and the city isn’t requiring them for adolescents yet. The city hasn’t said if medical or religious exemptions would be allowed for the staff mandate.

Porter said there are several strategies when a COVID-19 case occurs in a student this fall:

  • For elementary schools, with younger students under the age of 12 who are not currently eligible to get vaccinated, a positive COVID-19 diagnosis in a classroom will mean all students will be quarantined for ten days while receiving remote learning.
  • For middle and high school classes, fully vaccinated students and staff who are exposed to confirmed cases but remain asymptomatic can continue to attend school and will be “encouraged” to take a COVID-19 test three to five days after potential exposure.
  • Fully vaccinated students and staffers who are showing symptoms will be directed to quarantine for ten days and will have access to remote learning while in quarantine.
  • Unvaccinated middle and high school students will be directed to quarantine for 10 calendar days. But they can exit it after seven days with proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken on the fifth day of quarantine.

Elementary students will receive “live online instruction” by their classroom teachers provided full-time while they are quarantining, Porter said.

Middle and high school students will have “access to remote learning” while they are in quarantine, though it was not immediately clear if the instruction will be asynchronous or synchronous with in-person classes. It was also not immediately clear who will be teaching either the “live online instruction” or “remote learning” to the quarantined middle and high school kids if their classrooms have some kids who are vaccinated and could continue going to school.

Rubinstein said she would prefer the school system allow younger students with negative COVID-19 tests to return to the classroom before 10 days. “When a kid gets sick they should definitely go home, and the rest of the kids should definitely keep going to school,” she said.

But parents and teachers who have called for additional precautions given the spread of the highly contagious delta variant said they don’t believe the safety measures go far enough.

Teacher Annie Tan called the new reduced testing policy “inadequate.”

“It really throws me off that there’s only gonna be testing every two weeks…because cases can rise and fall within that time period,” she said. “That really makes no sense,” … If you’re not testing, then you can’t quarantine a class, because you don’t know what cases are there.”

For students with medical conditions, the DOE has expanded an existing Home Instruction program, Porter said. The program can include individual in-person instruction or “individual and small group instruction by certified teachers through digital platforms,” she said.

The expanded list of eligible conditions include: active cancer, chronic renal diseases, sickle cell, gastro/Crohn’s disease, thalassemia, leukemia, metabolic disorders, heart conditions, muscular dystrophy, adrenal disorder, cystic fibrosis, liver disease, tumor, congenital lung disease, congenital heart condition, lymphoma, cerebral ataxia, seizures, stroke and multiple sclerosis.

One parent, Latoya Reed, said she was glad to hear that children with certain health conditions would be eligible for a remote option. Her oldest daughter is vaccinated and able to attend high school, but she’s worried about her two younger children who are unvaccinated. One has sickle cell disease and would be eligible for instruction at home. The other who has severe asthma would not.

“How can I send one child or two children [to] school and keep one home?” Reed said. “That means they would have the chance of possibly bringing [COVID] home for her to catch.”

De Blasio repeatedly pointed to the city’s COVID-19 protocols in schools and vaccines as the key to a successful school year, including a sizable increase in the number of eligible kids getting vaccinated this summer. He said Thursday 66% of New Yorkers 12 and older have taken COVID-19 vaccines.

These and other details coincided with the release of a Department of Education-issued handbook for parents and caregivers of students, called, “DOE Homecoming 2021: Our Commitment to Your Health and Safety.”

City officials said they would be releasing more details on school reopening in the coming weeks. The city’s public school system opens its doors to students on September 13th.

This story was updated with reactions from parents and an educator.

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