NYC school reopening redux: What to know about heading back to class

Students returned to P.S. 188 The Island School for the first time on Sept. 29. After a spike in COVID-19 cases led to another systemwide school building shutdown, classes will resume beginning Monday for preschool and elementary school students, as well as those with complex disabilities. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

An estimated 200,000 New York City students are set to return to school buildings starting Monday, following a brief citywide campus shutdown amid rising coronavirus cases. Over the course of the week, schools will welcome back preschool and elementary school children, as well as those in District 75, which serves students with the most complex disabilities. 

Even as buildings reopen, families should brace for individual classroom and school closures if coronavirus cases are identified. It’s also possible that positivity rates climb high enough to trigger a systemwide shutdown.

The reopening doesn’t change the fact that on a given day, the overwhelming majority of the city’s roughly 1 million public school students will be learning from home, and improving remote teaching has gotten little attention compared to the time and money spent on reopening buildings. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio is no longer using the threshold he previously set for a systemwide closure — 3% positivity rate of coronavirus tests over a rolling seven-day average. But targeted closures are still possible. One positive case would result in quarantining that student or staffer’s class, while two or more cases could cause the whole building to close, depending on how those cases are related

Public health officials and the mayor have repeatedly said there’s little evidence that schools are contributing to higher rates of COVID-19, and many experts believe that younger children are less likely to spread the virus. 

But cases are clearly going up across the city. The city’s seven-day positivity rate reached 5.43%, according to data posted Friday. The numbers of students and school staff testing positive has also risen. Roughly 3,740 students and staff tested positive for the coronavirus between Sept. 14 and Dec. 3 — with cases identified among public school students and staff increasing 33% over the past two weeks, according to public data. That is still lower than the uptick citywide, which jumped about 46% during the same period. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in July that he would close schools when the coronavirus positivity rate reached 9% over seven days. When asked to confirm whether that still holds, City Hall and education department officials said to direct questions to the state. State officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment, again raising questions about whether city and state leaders are on the same page about what to expect should coronavirus cases continue to climb. 

Here’s what we know about Monday’s reopening.

What grades are returning to school?

Not everyone who opted for in-person learning is heading back to the classroom. Only those in pre-K (including 3-year-olds) through grade 5 will return beginning Monday. (In K-8 and K-12 schools, only students in the elementary grades will be back on campus.)

On Thursday, students in District 75 schools start heading back. Those schools serve students with the most complex learning challenges, including some with autism and intellectual disabilities.

Middle and high school students who are not in District 75 will not return until the new year, at the earliest, but no firm date has been given. 

Because of social distancing requirements, not all returning students will head back on the same day. Many schools will still operate on a hybrid schedule, with students in classrooms part-time, and learning remotely the rest of the days.

Who is returning?

There are some differences between racial groups when it comes to who is expected to head back to class. Almost a quarter of those signed up for in-person learning are white, a disproportionate share compared with a citywide enrollment of just 16% white students. 

Almost 43% are Latino, about two percentage points higher than overall enrollment. Black and Asian students will likely be underrepresented: Only about 18% and 12%, have signed up for in-person instruction. 

Some big caveats about these numbers: The percentages are based on last school year’s enrollment, since the city hasn’t provided figures for this year. Preliminary data in New York City, and trends across the country, show that public schools have likely lost a significant number of students. Among those who left, some groups of students may be overrepresented.  

Also, the percentages provided by the city do not include demographics for an additional 30,000 students in pre-K classrooms at community-run organizations. Nor do they include 35,000 students who had been learning fully remotely in the fall and chose to switch to in-person learning. 

Are children really returning five days a week?

Elementary school and District 75 principals have to let the education department know by Monday whether they can accommodate students full-time on campus, based on staffing and building capacity. Schools will still have to follow social--distancing guidelines. The mayor has said “most” schools will be able to offer five days a week in-person, but did not say how he arrived at that number. Many schools will likely have trouble scaling up the number of days that students can attend, given space and staffing constraints. 

The education department also asked schools to prioritize high-needs students when determining who should attend more frequently.

“Schools should review their capacity to provide students with disabilities (especially those in special class settings, as well as specialized programs) full-time, in-person instruction within health and safety guidelines, to the greatest extent possible,” stated a memo sent to principals this week. “As long as all students with disabilities’ needs are met, other student groups can be prioritized for additional in-person instruction, including students in shelters, Multilingual Learners (MLL), students needing academic interventions, and others.”

Who can’t return?

Only students who had already been attending school in person or those who had signed up last month to do so can return to buildings.

In order to attend in-person classes, students must consent to be tested on campus for COVID-19. The consent forms can be filled out online or submitted to the school on the child’s first day back on campus. As part of this round of reopening schools, a random sampling of 20% of students and staff will be tested weekly for the virus. (Previously, testing was done on a monthly basis, and the percentage of those tested varied according to enrollment.)

Students in grades kindergarten and below are not included in testing. Students in District 75 schools will be tested starting Dec. 14, after originally being exempted from the program. 

Parents can apply for exemptions for medical reasons or because a student’s disability would make it unsafe to test them. 

What are some concerns about the city’s testing program?

Some parents have chafed at the idea of their children being tested at school, and want to be present for the procedure or allowed to have their child tested by their own pediatrician. But the mayor has stood firm on the city’s requirements. 

It was not immediately clear how many consent forms have been returned as of Friday night. 

There are some holes in the city’s testing protocol. Staff in pre-K classrooms run by community organizations which make up a majority of the seats provided through the city’s free preschool program, are not tested. Neither are those staffing Learning Bridges sites, which provide child care for students learning in the hybrid model on the days they are not on campus.

What about so-called orange or red zones?

The state has imposed additional restrictions on areas of the city that are considered “red zones,” which have the highest positivity rate of COVID-19 tests, and orange and yellow zones, which also are experiencing a spike in cases.

Some parts of Staten Island are under orange zone restrictions, which require additional testing to reopen schools. While de Blasio had expressed hope that those campuses could open as early as Dec. 7, that will not be the case for about 45 school sites located in a state-designated orange zone, according to information on the education department’s website.

However, the governor this week loosened orange zone requirements for keeping schools open, so it’s unclear what else needs to happen in order to reopen those campuses. 

On Friday, the mayor said schools in orange zone could reopen sometime in the next week, but it was still unclear when that would happen. 

“We have some additional work to do. We haven’t fixed the day yet,” de Blasio said during a radio appearance on WNYC. “We will do that very quickly, obviously.”

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