NY.C.’s Challenge: Keeping 1 Million Students Safe Amid Delta

With his time in office coming to a close, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City has staked much of his legacy on reopening schools during the pandemic, putting in-class learning at the center of his push to get the city running again.

On Thursday, the mayor laid out a safety plan aimed at reassuring parents and educators anxious about the return to classrooms, with different sets of rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated students, only days after he announced a vaccine mandate for all school staff.

The announcement is part of Mr. de Blasio’s effort to prove that the city can keep the largest school district in the country safe, even without a remote learning option, amid the spread of the more contagious Delta variant — and with roughly 600,000 more children back in classrooms.

“Think about a child who hasn’t been inside a classroom in a year and a half; that’s not supposed to happen, we can’t let that happen anymore,” Mr. de Blasio said during a news conference on Thursday.

Mr. de Blasio is aiming to avoid the bitter fights about masks and vaccinations in schools that have roiled so many other areas, as districts across the country have adopted a range of approaches in response to the threat of Delta. Some plans have been heavily shaped by politics, as some parents in districts controlled by Republican mayors and governors have pushed back against restrictions.

Parents in one district south of Nashville berated and threatened education officials there for approving a mask mandate for schools. But Los Angeles is embarking on a massive effort to test every student and staff member in school each week. Many districts fall somewhere in the middle. An increasing number of districts have adopted mask mandates in recent weeks as large-scale quarantines have disrupted learning.

In New York City, where mask mandates have been in place since last year, many parents have called for strict measures. It’s unlikely that Mr. de Blasio’s announcement will satisfy all hesitant families.

“When we knew we were bringing one million kids back with Delta raging, with half the population unvaccinated, we should be doing more, not less, and that’s where I’m frustrated,” Kelly Verel, a Brooklyn parent, said about the city’s plan.

Ms. Verel, who has one child with asthma, is eager for her children to finally return to classrooms. But she said she wants more details from the city on distancing in common spaces like cafeterias, and on the use of outdoor school space.

The city’s delay in announcing plans until this late in the summer has compounded parents’ anxiety about the full return to classrooms.

Thursday’s announcement highlights the precarious balance the city is trying to strike to keep students and staffers safe while minimizing disruptions to learning. Perhaps surprisingly, the city is shrinking its school virus testing program. This year, 10 percent of unvaccinated students will be tested every other week. Last year, the city initially tested 10 percent of all people in schools weekly, but increased to 20 percent every week in the spring, when the mayor relaxed quarantining rules.

Mr. de Blasio insisted that there would be fewer quarantines than last year, when buildings shut down so frequently that parents argued schools were barely open despite a low overall positive test rate. Now, when someone in a classroom tests positive, only unvaccinated close contacts will have to quarantine for 10 days, although the city did not define a close contact.

An entire elementary school classroom will temporarily switch to remote learning when one student tests positive. It is still likely that there will be frequent classroom closures for elementary schools.

Middle and high school students who are unvaccinated and are considered close contacts of an infected person can test out of quarantine early if they receive a negative result five days into their quarantine.

There will be no more threshold for the number of positive cases that will automatically trigger an entire school closure. Instead, buildings will close for 10 days if there is evidence of widespread transmission as determined by the city’s disease detectives.

Elementary school students learning at home during quarantine will receive live online instruction from their teachers, but quarantined older students will not.

The city is also planning to expand an existing program that allows medically vulnerable children to get a few hours of in-person, at-home instruction a week.

New York has also upgraded ventilation over the last year and will send two air purifiers to each classroom. City officials said there will be three feet of distance between students in over 90 percent of classrooms, but less in particularly overcrowded schools. Those schools may use annex space or stagger schedules to maintain at least some distance.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised that schools maintain distance where possible, but that in-person learning should take precedence. Public health experts have said that less than three feet of distance can be safe, as long as other safety protocols are followed.

Unlike last summer, the city has had the benefit of both time and money to make reopening a smoother process, through an influx of federal dollars funneled to districts by the Biden administration. But the mayor had not made any major announcements on schools between May and earlier this week, when he said that all Department of Education staff, including teachers, would have to get at least their first shot of a coronavirus vaccine by Sept. 27.

The new safety details announced this week are unlikely to quiet growing calls for a remote learning option.

Elected officials, including a group of City Council members and the borough presidents of Queens and Manhattan, have urged the mayor to create an online learning option, at least for children under 12 who cannot yet be vaccinated. They have been joined by some parents who say they would consider home-schooling their children rather than sending them back into classrooms.

Washington, D.C., and Chicago, like New York, are requiring almost all students to return to classrooms, but have created a small online learning option for immunocompromised children. But many other large districts, including Los Angeles, Miami and Las Vegas, will keep some kind of virtual option, including for students without major health concerns. But the vast majority of parents in those districts have opted for in-person schooling.

Mr. de Blasio is betting that increased support for in-person learning from parents compared with last year — along with buy-in from the city’s teachers’ and principals’ union — will buoy his argument against reinstating remote learning.

Union leaders believe both that in-person learning is superior, and that creating an online learning option would again create a logistical nightmare for their members. On Thursday, the United Federation of Teachers said it agreed with the city’s safety plan, but that it was still negotiating with City Hall on how exactly remote learning would work when students are quarantined.

Mr. de Blasio’s decision to eliminate remote learning puts even more pressure on this year’s school safety protocols. The city’s new testing plan may invite scrutiny, especially when compared with other districts.

Los Angeles, the country’s second-largest school district, has spent the last year building a massive $350 million school testing operation aimed at testing every single student and staff member weekly. Chicago, the third-largest school system, will test every student each week.

Districts in Massachusetts and Maryland are trying to dramatically expand testing in schools by pooling samples together. Nasal swab samples from 10 or more students from the same class are mixed together and tested as a single sample to learn if anyone in the class might be infected.

In recent weeks, New York City officials have begun to realize that its limited testing capacity may emerge as a weakness in the city’s plans to keep schools a relatively low-risk environment for coronavirus transmission. City officials have been trying to buy millions of more tests and increase school testing capacity, but are contending against a supply shortage after a leading test manufacturer destroyed much of its inventory.

Testing 10 percent of students weekly could provide useful information about how much virus is circulating among students, said Dr. Denis Nash, an epidemiologist at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy.

“What you can’t do with 10 percent is reduce the number of infections,” he said. Still, Dr. Nash said he did not anticipate schools would be a significant source of transmission, so long as other safety precautions were followed, including mask-wearing and ventilation.

Dr. Kitaw Demissie, dean of the School of Public Health at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, said that given the importance of in-person schooling, he thought testing should be scaled up. “Weekly testing of everybody coming to school would be the best strategy,” he said.

The mayor defended the plan on Thursday, saying the city did not need as much testing with all staff and many students vaccinated. He said the city had seen an increase in students getting vaccinated over the last six weeks, and noted that the city could increase testing in schools or neighborhoods as needed.

Over half of eligible New York City children, age 12 and above, have received at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine. It is not clear how many of those children are public school students.

While some 88 percent of Asian teenagers, 13 to 17, are fully vaccinated, only 22 percent of Black teenagers and 36 percent of Latino teenagers in that age range are fully vaccinated. This means that some schools are far more susceptible to outbreaks than others, considering how racially segregated city schools are.

Newyork timek

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