COVID rates inch toward NYC’s threshold for shutting down schools

Mayor Bill de Blasio greeted students returning to One World Middle School at Edenwald in the Bronx. The city is seeing an uptick in coronavirus cases that could force school closures. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

New York City has “one last chance” to turn the tide of rising coronavirus cases — or else face possible shutdowns again that could include school closures, Mayor Bill de Blasio warned Monday.

The seven-day citywide positivity average reached 2.21%, creeping closer to the 3% threshold that the mayor set for a citywide closure of the country’s largest school system. 

“We’re in a dangerous situation, and we have to change our habits,” de Blasio said. “We cannot take the risk of going back to larger shutdowns of our city, our economy.”

The increase comes as New York heads into the holiday season, where a confluence of potentially problematic factors could hit at once: more families traveling to areas with even higher COVID-19 rates, less fresh air circulating inside because of closed windows, and an uptick of students entering school buildings as children who have been learning exclusively online have the opportunity to return to buildings. 

Dr. Ted Long, who heads the city’s Test and Trace Corps, said about 10% of cases are being tied back to travel, and another 5-10% are linked to specific gatherings and events. But officials have said schools have not been a driver of infections and random testing of students and staff on campuses have shown a positivity rate of just .15%. 

Still, state data highlight that classrooms are experiencing significant disruptions because of the virus: 698 New York City schools, or about 43% of all campuses, have reported at least one positive case among students and staff, according to a Chalkbeat analysis. A spokesperson for the city education department said that number includes people who did not report to campus.

One positive case triggers the closure of a classroom for two weeks, but the school can remain open. Multiple cases in a building could trigger a campus shutdown if an investigation shows no clear link among those who tested positive. City data show that 362 classrooms are currently closed, making up about 40% of all closures reported since Sept. 14.

Public health officials have long warned the virus could come surging back as cold weather brought dry air and forced people to gather indoors, where the virus can often spread more easily. With major American holidays just around the corner, officials are now worried about spread by travel and family gatherings. 

The city’s health commissioner, Dr. Dave Chokshi, told New Yorkers to double down on social distancing and mask-wearing, and warned that holiday plans would have to change this year. 

“The timing of this increase should give us pause, because it comes at a moment that I want to acknowledge is precious to so many of us. It’s precious and yet laden with risk this year – the holidays,” Chokshi said. “I want to be clear, the holidays this year cannot look like years’ past.”

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The timing could also spell trouble for the country’s largest school system, which has been a bright spot in the city’s quest to reopen. Infection rates have remained low even as students have returned to classrooms. Part of that success may be because many buildings are relatively empty, with 54% of students choosing to stay home and learn exclusively online. Only about a quarter of the city’s roughly 1 million students have showed up to campus at least once since buildings reopened in September. 

The education department recently back-tracked on a promise to allow students to opt into in-person learning at multiple points in the school year and instead want parents to decide by Nov. 15. The deadline could mean that more children head back to classrooms after the holiday season. 

Many charter and private schools, on the other hand, are keeping all students in remote learning for weeks after the holidays, giving students and staff time to quarantine after potentially traveling or spending time at indoor gatherings.

In a conference call with reporters on Monday, Cuomo acknowledged the growing number of cases, but also argued that the state is still in a better position than many others. 

“The best you can do is manage the increase, but it will be increasing,” he said of the rising number of cases. 

Cuomo touted the state’s strict thresholds for taking action once coronavirus cases rise, and also emphasized that New York is facing much lower rates than many other states. 

“It’s not a surge. It’s only a surge in our mind by our relative index,” he said.  

New York City, once the world’s epicenter for the virus, has set its standards even tougher than the state, with Cuomo calling for school shutdowns once positivity reaches 9% over a seven day period. In other countries fighting off another wave of the virus, leaders have closed other parts of society but kept campuses open — and evidence, while still limited, has continued to build the case that schools can operate safely. 

Though two state agencies — the health department and education department — have signed off on the city’s school closure plans, the mayor and governor have often clashed and shifted course throughout the pandemic. So parents and educators could be in store for more confusion and frustration.  

Even amid warning signs that the virus’s reach is spreading, de Blasio said Monday that the city would move ahead with opening schools that had been closed in specific neighborhood hotspots that had experienced a rise in cases. 

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In Brooklyn, 23 school sites will be allowed to open on Thursday in areas that the state had designated as red zones, requiring closures and business restrictions. These areas have seen cases go down enough to become yellow zones, which are subject to fewer restrictions. Another 22 school sites, in areas that have moved from red to orange, will remain closed, the education department said. 

The following schools will reopen Thursday:

  • P.S. 131 Brooklyn
  • P.S. 048 Mapleton
  • P.S. 105 The Blythebourne
  • P.S. 160 William T. Sampson
  • P.S. 164 Caesar Rodney
  • P.S. 179 Kensington
  • The SEEALL Academy
  • J.H.S. 223 The Montauk
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School
  • Urban Assembly School for Leadership and Empowerment
  • District 20 Pre-K Center at 1423 62nd Street
  • District 20 Pre-K Center at 1668 46th Street
  • P.S. 121 Nelson A. Rockefeller
  • P.S. 209 Margaret Mead
  • P.S. 226 Alfred De B. Mason
  • Brooklyn’s Daily Discovery Pre-K Center at 2202 60th Street
  • P.S. 193 Gil Hodges
  • P.S. 222 Katherine R. SnyderAndries Hudde
  • I.S. 381
  • P077K @ P164K
  • P231K @ P180K
  • P.S. 207 Elizabeth G. Leary

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that the 698 schools had cases among students and staff who reported to campus, as is shown on the state’s coronavirus dashboard. The city’s education department has since clarified that affected schools include those where staff and enrolled students tested positive but did not attend school in person. Also, this story misstated the threshold that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has set for closing schools. It’s 9% positivity over seven days.

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