With less than three weeks remaining before schools reopen for nearly 1 million students, New York City officials revealed a suite of safety protocols including coronavirus testing and classroom closure policies.
Under the new rules announced Thursday, the city plans to reduce the frequency and scale of random coronavirus testing compared with last year, with 10% of unvaccinated people in schools tested twice a month.
In a few key areas, the city’s policies are more strict than what federal guidance recommends, including on quarantining and masking.
When positive cases do pop up, a single case in an elementary school classroom will prompt all students in the room to quarantine and learn remotely, a policy that is more conservative than guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Vaccinated middle and high school students who are exposed to the virus will not have to quarantine if they don’t show symptoms.
The testing and quarantining rules are key pieces of the reopening puzzle because they determine how often in-person learning could be disrupted and may help to curb the virus’ spread.
Last school year, positive coronavirus cases led to thousands of classroom and building closures, resulting in regular ping-ponging between in-person and remote learning at many schools.
Unlike last year, when over 60% of students opted to learn fully remotely, all families are expected to send their children to school in person this fall. That has sparked concern among some parents, educators, and elected officials who have called for a remote option as the highly contagious delta variant circulates and questions remain about its impact on children, though serious illness and death remain rare.
(Officials also announced Thursday that they plan to expand an existing home instruction program for “medically fragile” students with a range of health conditions, though it is expected to serve fewer than 5,000 students.)
Health experts have generally said that vaccines and masking are the two most important protections against the coronavirus spreading in schools. Universal masking in school buildings will be required this year, officials previously announced.
And on Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said all education department staff will be required to be vaccinated and receive a first dose by Sept. 27 at the latest, two weeks after the first day of school.
Still, with no vaccines currently approved for children 11 years old and younger, and approval possibly months away, most of the city’s students will not be vaccinated when schools reopen. (At least 60% of children ages 12-17 have received at least one dose, officials said earlier this week.)
Here’s what you should know about the safety protocols city officials announced Thursday:
Schools will continue to require students and staff to complete a daily health screening that confirms they don’t have COVID symptoms or haven’t come in close contact with anyone who has tested positive for the virus.
Once on campus, 10% of unvaccinated people will be tested on a biweekly basis. Fully vaccinated people do not have to participate in testing.
Parents are being asked to consent to the swabs, which can be done through the NYC Schools Account or by downloading a form. However, it’s not clear whether consent will be required. A city handbook outlining back-to-school policies says testing will include “individuals who have submitted consent.”
“It is important that you provide consent for your child to participate in the in school testing program,” the city’s handbook says.
Last school year, officials initially required monthly testing of 20% of students and staff then bumped it to a weekly routine in December 2020 after schools were closed amid a rise in COVID cases. Preschool and kindergarten students were previously not included in testing requirements and that will continue this fall.
For summer programs, 10% of students and staff at each site were tested every other week, with a larger portion tested when positive COVID cases pop up.
There will be no set number of cases that will cause a school building to be shut down this year. Entire schools will only be closed if city health officials determine that there is “widespread transmission” of COVID inside of the building, including “multiple sources of infection,” officials said.
Entire classrooms will close in elementary schools if someone tests positive, and those children will be required to isolate for 10 days. That policy is more conservative than the CDC recommendation that even unvaccinated students should not have to be quarantined in all cases if they are properly masked and at least three feet away from an infected student and the exposure happened in a classroom.
In middle and high school classrooms, vaccinated students will be allowed to return to school as long as they don’t have symptoms, but city officials are encouraging them to get tested for COVID 3-5 days after exposure to an infected person “out of an abundance of caution.” The CDC goes farther and says vaccinated students should get tested following exposure.
Unvaccinated middle and high school students who are exposed to an infected person will be required to quarantine but can take a COVID-19 test on their fifth day of isolation. If it is negative, they can return to school after their 7th day of quarantine.
City officials acknowledged that the quarantine policy for elementary classrooms is more conservative than what the CDC recommends, and de Blasio acknowledged it would lead to classroom closures.
“We will have some classroom quarantines, that’s true, but we’re also gonna see a lot of people able to stay when others have to quarantine,” because of vaccinations, the mayor said.
The quarantine rules are a big departure from the highly-debated policy last school year, when just two unrelated virus cases caused whole schools to shut down. That policy, which some public health experts called overly conservative, resulted in frequent two-week closures that disrupted stability for students, working caregivers, and teachers. City officials later changed their policy to close buildings only when there are positive cases in four separate classrooms, but still to close individual classrooms with at least one infected person.
“We need to balance all the factors, but we want less disruption this year, while maintaining health and safety,” de Blasio said of school-wide closures. “It’s going to be much more case by case.”
Instruction in Quarantine
Elementary school students will receive live instruction when their classrooms are closed, according to schools Chancellor Meisha Porter. Entire classrooms will have to close for 10 days.
Middle and high school students who are quarantining will have “access” to remote learning, but it’s still unclear how instruction will work if classrooms are split with some students learning remotely and others learning in person (since vaccinated students without any symptoms will continue to attend in person).
Some districts, including Chicago, plan to ask teachers to livestream their classrooms to students at home, but that setup can be challenging for educators to execute and union leaders in New York City successfully opposed that setup last year.
De Blasio indicated that the city is still negotiating the details of how instruction will be provided with union leaders. “We’re going to be filling in a few more blanks in the next few days because there’s still a couple of issues being worked out,” he said. “We’re still a few weeks out from the beginning of school.”
Masks will be universally required in schools, regardless of vaccination status. That includes when staff and students are outdoors, which is more strict than what the CDC recommends.
Federal guidance calls for masks outdoors if people are unvaccinated and in crowded settings or when they participate in activities involving “sustained close contact.” Vaccinated people “might choose” to wear a mask in crowded settings and if they live with someone who is immunocompromised, according to the CDC.
The city’s handbook says that there will be designated “mask breaks,” during which students can remove their masks while they “maintain physical distance from each other.” It further adds that students who are not “medically able” to wear masks will be given “alternative accommodations.”
The CDC has recommended that schools maintain three feet of social distancing — unless doing so prevents students from returning to school full-time. The education department echoes that guidance in their handbook.
The city’s guidance says that elementary schools will make efforts to keep consistent groups of students together “wherever possible.”
Parents and students have been particularly worried about lunchtime, when students will be unmasked.
The guidance also says that schools will use outdoor and other spaces whenever possible, and that meals can be served in multiple locations and across multiple periods.