New York City public school students who learn alongside COVID-19-positve classmates can stay in school if they test negative for the virus using scaled-up at-home testing, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday.
“Every child who tests negative comes back to school,” de Blasio said during a virtual press briefing, dubbing the approach “stay safe and stay open.”
When a public school student tests positive for COVID-19, beginning Jan. 3 all children in their class will be given two at-home testing kits to use for seven days, he said. Each child who is negative and does not demonstrate virus symptoms can return to school, the mayor explained.
“This guarantees more consistency in their education, it guarantees fewer disruptions,” said de Blasio.
De Blasio noted that 98 percent of close contacts of public school students who test positive for the virus do not end up contracting it as well. That approximation comes from a city Department of Health report on Big Apple public schools, conducted from October to December, that found the “secondary attack rate,” for COVID-19 in school buildings is very low.
Specifically, for staff, students and teachers who test positive for COVID-19, just 1 in 120 of their in-schooling contacts developed COVID-19, according to the report.
“The jury has come back, we have a lot of evidence now, it’s told us this is the approach that’s going to work for the future.”
Under the new policy, students are permitted to attend classes in person if they or their parents say that they have tested negative via at-home test, but don’t need to provide proof of negative test results, said Dr. Dave Chokshi, the city’s health commissioner.
The announcement comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday reduced its recommended quarantine period from 10 days to five for those who no longer have symptoms.
In recent months, city officials have opted to shutter entire classrooms in the event of an exposure and to move impacted students to remote learning for 10 days. Roughly 4,700 classrooms have been closed this academic year.
But the city’s new guidelines allow kids who test negative after an infection emerges to remain in school. In addition, the city will increase the frequency of random in-school testing of students and staff, de Blasio announced.
Joined remotely Tuesday morning by Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor-elect Eric Adams, de Blasio revealed that weekly testing in Department of Education schools will be doubled when schools return after Christmas break. The testing will now include vaccinated as well as unvaccinated pupils, he said.
“We’re going to double the amount of testing we do in schools,” the mayor said, adding the city will launch a “big push” to encourage parents to sign consent forms for testing. “These are the things we’re going to do to keep everyone safe.”
Hochul touted the 600,000 rapid tests the state sent to the city Department of Health last week, setting up five state-run testing sites opening Wednesday in the five boroughs and 10 additional ambulances the state dispatched to the Big Apple.
“The state and city [are] working together. We’re going to make sure there’s no shortage of supply,” she said during the press briefing.
Adams, who will succeed de Blasio on Jan. 1, praised Hochul and the mayor for being “unified” in handling the virus.
“We must reopen the city and we can do that. And so, you and the governor and I are sending a clear message to New Yorkers and to this entire country that we are together to fight this real battle that we have,” said the outgoing Brooklyn borough president.
“We’re saying loud and clear: Your children are safer in school and we are united to make sure they will continue to be safe.”
In response to the change, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew praised Hochul for sending 2 million rapid tests to Big Apple schools while declaring the jury is still out on City Hall’s ability to manage the virus in schools as the Omicron variant has sent cases skyrocketing.
“Teachers are prepared to do their jobs starting January 3rd. The real issue is whether the city can do its job,” Michael Mulgrew said in a statement. “We are moving closer to a safe re-opening of school next week. But we are not there yet.”
Principals Union President Mark Cannizzaro praised the mayor’s plans, while calling for contingency measures for potentially depleted staffing.
“Increased testing in school buildings and the distribution of at-home test kits will help keep our schools safe, and our efforts must include a push to increase the percentage of families who consent to in-school testing,” he said. “We also need a clear plan to address the staffing shortages that overwhelmed our system prior to the winter recess and are sure to continue as Omicron cases rise.”
City Comptroller-elect Brad Lander (D- Park Slope) proposed that students be tested for the coronavirus ahead of the upcoming return to classrooms after winter break rather than when they come back to school buildings amid a winter coronavirus surge.
“Scaling up testing in our schools is essential to keeping students, teachers and our communities safe. I’m glad to see a start in that direction,” said Lander, an outgoing councilman, in a press release. “But as Omicron spreads rapidly in our city, requiring and providing tests BEFORE students, teachers and staff go back to classrooms would go a long way to slowing this outbreak.”
Deborah Alexander, a mother of two New York City public school students, quipped of the measures, “unlike most de Blasio policies, I can say I actually agree with this one.”
“I think keeping kids in schools is of paramount importance. Keeping kids out of school was the second pandemic,” added Alexander, the mother of a sixth and ninth grader. who attend schools in Queens and the Bronx. “Schools are the safest places for kids to be, so I think test-to-stay is a viable compromise to keeping kids safe and keeping them in school.”
But others were not convinced the mayor’s plans would keep students healthy.
“I dont think it’s enough. I’m really concerned about the increase — the really dramatic increase in the number of children that are not just testing positive but also being hospitalized,” said Kaliris Salas of Community Education Council 4. “Ideally, we would like to see 100 percent testing for everybody in the school building, and, of course, a remote option for families.”