Could NYC school buildings shutter again? It’s possible under state rules, de Blasio says

Mayor Bill de Blasio ditched his 3% threshold for shuttering school buildings, but a state rule could still cause a shutdown if positive rates reach 9%.

Class is in session at P.S. 5 Port Morris in the Bronx. Mayor Bill de Blasio said state rules could still cause a citywide shutdown of schools. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

New York City reopened school buildings this week for its youngest and most vulnerable students, after many parents protested the nearly two-week closure sparked by rising coronavirus cases.

But another citywide shutdown of public schools is still possible.

Although Mayor Bill de Blasio ditched his numerical threshold for shuttering buildings across the city — 3% positive cases over a seven-day average — a state rule that Gov. Andrew Cuomo set in July still requires schools in a given region to close if that area’s seven-day positivity rate hits 9%. 

Cuomo hasn’t said whether he’ll stand by that rule, but de Blasio said that the state’s “standard” was still in place as of now.

“That is my understanding,” de Blasio said Tuesday. “But our goal is to never have it become part of our reality.” 

It’s possible that Cuomo’s stance may have shifted, given the constantly changing guidelines over state-mandated school closures and the governor’s recent insistence on keeping schools open as long as possible. Neither the governor’s office nor the state health department responded to multiple requests for comment on whether this 9% rule still stands. 

De Blasio suggested that he could push back on the state’s 9% closure rule, citing relatively low positivity rates in schools and increasing in-school testing to a weekly basis. The positivity rate from school-based testing was .29% from early October, when in-school testing started, until Monday, according to the most recently available data. 

“I think we’re gonna have a real conversation with the state and the public going forward on the actual facts we learn from 850 [school buildings] being open over these coming weeks,” de Blasio said. “I’m very hopeful from what I’m seeing that these extraordinary health and safety measures really now have proven there is a very, very effective way to do this for the duration.”

The city’s 7-day positivity rate was 4.13%, according to state data, which calculates positivity rates differently than the city, and the numbers are trending upward. 

Lingering concerns

At least one elementary school wrote a letter to remain fully remote given the rising positivity rates in neighborhoods their students call home as New York City schools this week welcomed back pre-schoolers, elementary school students and those in District 75. 

“Our building is over 100 years old and relies on cross breeze (both windows and doors open) for DOE-approved ventilation,” said an open letter to the chancellor from the staff at Brooklyn New School, a lottery-based elementary school drawing students from across the borough to its Carroll Gardens building. “Yet as we begin the winter months, this method of ventilation becomes increasingly untenable. Already this year we have had several days in person during which extreme cold has made instruction impossible because students were too uncomfortable to be available for learning.”

Education department officials said they’ve purchased 60,000 air purifiers for all classrooms that need one, and that windows don’t need to be open with the purifiers.

“As an education system, we have a responsibility to serve our students in person where possible, which is why we’ve worked hard to quickly reopen our elementary schools,” education department spokesperson Miranda Barbot said in an email. “As COVID cases rise across the city, our schools have proven they are safe, and we do not hesitate to take action and close a building if positive cases arise.”

Meanwhile, de Blasio has suggested that middle schools would potentially reopen in January, and after that he will come up with a plan for high schools. One group of parents has rallied to reopen middle and high schools.

Per the city’s own protocols, schools at the 850 buildings reopening this week can still close if two or more positive, unlinked cases are reported among in-person students and staff. Individual classrooms are closed with at least one positive case. As of Monday, 180 classrooms across the city were closed because of a positive coronavirus case, and five buildings were closed for two weeks, according to city data. 

Since mid-September, 2,075 classrooms have closed, and roughly 240 buildings have closed for two weeks. Roughly 4,130 students and staff have tested positive for coronavirus between Sept. 14 through Dec. 7, data showed.

The city’s health and safety protocols will keep schools open “all the way to the point where we link up with widespread distribution of the vaccine,” de Blasio claimed Tuesday, even as the positivity rate rises across the city. 

Ever-shifting guidance

It’s possible that the state would be open to changing its threshold. 

Cuomo has in recent weeks called schools the safest places to be, citing low positivity rates, and he has also loosened rules on how schools can reopen if they fall in state-mandated closure zones. That’s a reversal from October, when Cuomo suggested without evidence that schools could be major spreaders of the coronavirus. Some evidence suggest that schools have not played a major role in spreading the virus in many parts of the country, although public health experts say the data is limited and prevents firm conclusions.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who videoconferenced into Cuomo’s press conference on Monday, said he was “surprised” to see low positivity rates in schools.

“We’re seeing that in other parts of the country that the test positivity rate is actually really low,”  Fauci said, “which is really a good thing, which is one of the reasons why, when we were talking about what the best strategy would be, we would say something like close the bars, keep the schools open is the best thing to do.” (Indoor dining is still open in New York City, but the state could shut it down over the next few days if hospitalization rates don’t stabilize.) 

On top of citywide closures, the state can also impose restrictions on businesses, houses of worship, residential gatherings, and schools if they’re in neighborhoods with rising coronavirus positivity rates. For example, parts of Staten Island are currently in an orange zone. 

Previously, Cuomo had said schools in both red and orange zones must close for a few days before reopening, and any person must first test negative for the virus before entering a school — while requiring weekly testing that covered the entire school population over the course of a month. However, Cuomo loosened those restrictions last week, allowing schools in orange and red zones to remain open if they conduct weekly testing of in-person staff and students — 20% of them over a month in orange-zone schools, which matches the city’s new testing protocol, and 30% over a month for red-zone schools. 

This week, the governor said a region could be marked as a “red zone” if its hospitalization rates are rising significantly. 

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