NYC pushes to keep COVID testing mandates for in-person classes

Mayor de Blasio at P.S. 5 Port Morris in the Bronx on Dec. 7, 2020. Only students who consent to COVID-19 testing are allowed to attend in-person classes, and the mayor plans to keep that rule in place.
Mayor de Blasio at P.S. 5 Port Morris in the Bronx on Dec. 7, 2020. Only students who consent to COVID-19 testing are allowed to attend in-person classes, and the mayor plans to keep that rule in place. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

New York City’s public schools only allow students to attend in-person classes if their families consent to its random COVID-19 testing program. So it came as a surprise this week when the state education department issued guidance that schools could not require coronavirus testing as a condition for in-person learning or other school activities. 

New York City officials pushed back on Wednesday, a day after the guidance was announced, and state officials appear to be backing down. 

The city’s concerns are “being heard” by state leaders, Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters.

“I’m confident we’ll be able to continue our current practice,” de Blasio said. “It has been working. It’s the right way to do things.”

At the start of the school year, when random testing was being conducted monthly at schools, the city offered some leniency for students who did not want to be tested if enough of their peers consented to the swab, which takes a sample from the lower nasal cavity. But the mayor took a firmer stance after campuses reopened in December and the city moved to a more frequent testing schedule, following a brief citywide shutdown.

The weekly random testing of 20% of students and staff does not include pre-K and kindergarten students. Students with disabilities or medical conditions can also be exempt.

For all others, students whose families do not consent are switched to remote-only instruction. School staff can be placed on unpaid leave if they do not agree to testing.

Middle schools, which have been closed since November when coronavirus cases were on the rise, are slated to reopen this month with the same testing protocols.

State education department officials said to expect an update soon, but did not answer questions about what prompted such guidance halfway through the school year. 

“After concerns were raised by the field, we are working to further clarify the guidance and will release updated guidance in the next day or two,” spokesperson Emily DeSantis said in a statement. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo requires schools in areas with elevated rates of COVID-19 cases to conduct regular testing, though the state guidance notes that there is no mandate to test 100% of a school population. The only grounds to force a student into remote learning is if he or she is ill or symptomatic, according to the guidance. 

New York City’s testing protocol and other safety measures, including universal masking and social distancing, have been heralded for keeping the virus at bay inside school buildings. Many of the measures were agreed to after this summer’s threats from the teachers union to go on strike. The United Federation of Teachers said they would continue to push for testing mandates. 

“We will fight to make sure these protocols stay in place,” said a statement released by the union. 

Given that the city expects to be able to stick with its current protocol, de Blasio does not expect to allow students another opt-in period to switch to in-person learning. That could change, he said, if significantly more people are vaccinated and infection rates come down — though he did not offer specific thresholds. 

“I think there’s a possibility of an opt-in later on in this school year,” he said. “We’re not ready to say that yet, but that’s still a possibility.”

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