NYC’s Situation Room is supposed to respond quickly to school COVID-19 cases. It’s not working, Council members say.

A woman with a face shield and masks swabs the nose of another masked woman outdoors.
A pair of Brooklyn City Council members have a list of suggestions for how to improve the “Situation Room” response when positive coronavirus cases pop up in schools. (Michael Appleton / New York City Mayoral Photography Office)

Teachers at P.S. 63 anticipated their Bronx school would shut down this week when they learned from a company conducting on-site COVID-19 tests that three students were positive for the virus.

Two cases are supposed to trigger a building shutdown for at least 24-hours to investigate any possible links. But the building stayed open, and while some classrooms were closed, families didn’t hear about it until well into the night, a staff member at P.S. 63 told Chalkbeat.

“I feel like they’re just making it up along the way and it doesn’t make sense,” the staffer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, said. “This type of inconsistency is going to get people sick.”

New York City launched its so-called Situation Room this fall with the goal of quickly alerting school communities to positive COVID-19 cases. Ever since, the program has been riddled with glitches — long waits for test results, failures to let “close contacts” know that they may have been exposed, conflicting guidance for principals, and confusing letters to families.

As coronavirus cases rise throughout the city, and schools ramp up testing for students and staff, it’s crucial that the Situation Room finds its footing, two Brooklyn City Council members said Thursday.

In a letter sent this week to schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, Brooklyn Council members Brad Lander and Mark Treyger wrote: “We have heard from principals, families, and Learning Bridges partners that the communications from the Situation Room can be frustrating and opaque — far from what you characterized in the mayor’s initial press release as ‘resulting in quick, decisive action for our schools and clarity and transparency for all families.’”  

With in-school testing increasing from monthly to weekly, and with the results determining whether a school can stay open or must close, “it is critical that we work together to improve this vital system for school safety,” the letter stated. 

In response, education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot said the city has beefed up Situation Room staffing to reduce callback times, and that it errs on the side of over-communicating with parents. She said Situation Room employees “have made the safe reopening of schools possible.”

“This entirely new system has been adjusted and strengthened over the weeks, and we’ll continue to adapt as needed and address isolated incidents that may arise,” she said.

Elementary schools as well as District 75 schools, serving students with significant disabilities, returned this week after nearly two weeks learning fully remotely. Already, cases have sparked hundreds of targeted closures. More than 489 classrooms were closed as of Friday, while 30 buildings were closed for 24 hours, and 28 more were shuttered for two weeks, according to Situation Room data. That means about 7% of buildings that reopened quickly closed again by week’s end. By Monday, the percentage was 10%.

It’s a lot for principals to manage, and they need better support, the Council members said. Within 30 minutes of a school case being identified, principals should have a dedicated team of contacts, Lander and Treyer urged. 

Their letter cited the case of a public school with five positive coronavirus cases within 24 hours. The principal reported calling the Situation Room more than 50 times that day before speaking with someone who could tell her how to proceed, according to the letter. (She would have to close her building for two weeks, it turned out.)  

Meanwhile, someone who runs one of the city’s Learning Bridges child care centers, as well as a pre-K program in the same building, told the Council members she received 14 calls and several emails with conflicting information from various Situation Room staffers on how to respond to two cases at her center. (To make matters worse, she received different information from the city’s youth services department, which oversees her child care program, and from the education department.) 

Principals shared a litany of other complaints with the Council members about problems with Situation Room communications. Detailed information they need to send quickly to families about cases is often late or incomplete. Form letters they’re given often fail to  explain necessary information, so schools rewrite them. There’s been confusion, for example, over whether the dates for quarantining are based on when the cases were first reported or when the person was likely infected.

“As a result of this disorganization, school leaders report that COVID cases take over their lives leaving them little or no time to focus on instruction,” the Council members wrote.

School leaders are leaning on information from the Situation Room more than ever. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio is no longer using a 3% positivity rate over a rolling seven-day average as the threshold for closing all city public schools. Instead, families must consent to in-school COVID-19 testing to return to buildings, and schools will screen a random sampling of 20% of students and staff for the virus each week. One positive case will result in quarantining that student’s or staffer’s class, while two or more cases could cause the whole building to close, depending on how those cases are related.

There were a total of 4,791 positive cases among students and staff from Sept. 14 to Dec. 11, according to public data that includes testing done off-site as well as on-site. 

The number of positive cases identified among school communities is rising as more tests are conducted on campuses, data show. There were at least 166 positive cases among students and staff uncovered this week through Thursday, according to public data. Those represent 27% of cases found through on-site testing since the program began on Oct. 9.  

Schools are not believed to be major sources of transmission, public health experts have emphasized, and as cases rise across the city, it’s not surprising to see an uptick in schools as well. The five boroughs have seen a 6.26% positivity rate over seven days, as of Dec. 10, figures show.

Correction: About 7% of school buildings were shut as of Friday. This story originally said a higher percentage had closed.

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