In NYC, COVID testing could vary by school and community vaccination rates

A health care worker wearing a mask and a face shield uses a syringe to measure out a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from a vial.
With school less than a month away, New York City schools chancellor Meisha Porter said that COVID testing policies could vary based on local vaccination rates. Above, a healthcare worker in Colorado prepares to administer a vaccine. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Schools in neighborhoods with low vaccination rates might be subject to more frequent COVID testing this school year, New York City Chancellor Meisha Porter said Tuesday at a virtual forum. 

“We know there will be more people in school than there were last school year. And so we’re thinking about low-vaccine neighborhoods and how we ensure that there is more testing in those places,” Porter said at an education-themed forum hosted by the publication City & State. “Every day we’re having a different conversation and looking at the city differently.”

The education department will be announcing testing procedures soon, a spokesperson said after the story initially published.

With less than a month to go before classes begin, New York City has yet to detail many of the health policies that will be integral to reopening the nation’s largest school system. Rising infection rates and the more transmissible delta variant have pushed all the five boroughs into a “high transmission” area, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Schools are set to reopen Sept. 13 without an option for students to learn remotely. About 1 million students and more than 70,000 teachers will be back in classrooms. Depending on the city’s testing protocols, which have yet to be announced, that could add up to many more COVID tests conducted on school campuses. Last school year, a majority of students opted to learn exclusively online. COVID testing was mandatory for school staff and students, though a city study found that ultimately only 41% of families submitted to the swabs.  

City leaders have recently gone on a blitz to get more students and staff vaccinated, which experts say is the best bet for reopening school buildings as safely as possible. To do that, the city has set up vaccination sites at a smattering of schools across the city and offered cash incentives to PTAs who make referrals. 

At least 63% of education department staff have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to officials, though that number is almost certainly an underestimate since it doesn’t include employees who got the jab outside of New York City. At least 53% of children ages 12-17 have at least one dose, according to officials.

Vaccination rates vary widely by community and demographics, though, with the lowest rates in places like Far Rockaway and Bedford-Stuyvesant. In those neighborhoods, just over half of adults have at least one dose. Black adolescents ages 13-17 have the lowest vaccination rate in that age group: under 30%. 

That could have dramatic consequences for how rapidly coronavirus spreads, and whether school buildings stay open. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed more aggressive rules over time to get shots in arms, requiring restaurant workers to be vaccinated, and proof of vaccination to participate in indoor activities like going to the museum or attending a sports game. But, for now, he has stopped short of a hard mandate for teachers, many of whom will be in classrooms all day with students who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. While the state of California and the city of Chicago recently announced requirements for teachers to get their shots, New York City will allow school staff to present weekly negative COVID tests in lieu of vaccination. 

As the school year creeps closer, however, de Blasio recently suggested the city could change its approach. 

“We’re looking at all options,” he said Monday at a press conference, in response to questions. “Stay tuned.” 

Correction: This story incorrectly said that 70% of teachers have received at least one dose of vaccine. That is only the percentage of education department staff living in New York City who have received the shot. The education department says at least 63% of all staff have received at least one dose.

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