COVID cases among NYC students and school staff spiked over winter break

A mother waits with her daughter as she prepares to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine.
A mother waits with her daughter as she prepares to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. Coronavirus cases have increased significantly among students and staff in New York City. (Emily Elconin for Chalkbeat)

This story has been updated to reflect new coronavirus case data reported by the education department on Wednesday.

Over 38,000 teachers and students in New York City public schools have reported positive COVID tests since the Dec. 24 start of winter recess, representing more virus cases than the entire rest of the school year combined, according to updated figures the education department released Wednesday.

In the first three months of the school year, through Dec. 23, nearly 23,000 staff and students tested positive. 

The figures come with some caveats. The education department recently started including at-home rapid tests in their count of positive cases, likely inflating the most recent figures. City officials are no longer independently confirming all positive tests, relying instead on self-reporting by schools when a family or staff member informs them of a positive test result.

And the tally of cases during the winter break reflect when the cases were reported to the city and included some earlier positive results from before the break, officials said.

Still, there is little question that cases among students and staff are rising amid a record-breaking surge of coronavirus cases across the city and country, fueled by the more-contagious omicron variant.

The total number of positive cases since the first day of school is 61,453, with over 40,000 students and 21,000 staff testing positive, according to city data as of Jan. 4, out of over 1 million students and staff. (The figures include charter schools.)

Nearly 27,000 positive cases were reported on Monday and Tuesday alone, but education department officials stressed that most of those were the result of positive tests that occurred over the winter break but were not reported until schools reopened.

Still, the increase in cases means that schools and families are likely to face significant disruptions in the coming weeks in terms of attendance and staff shortages. Some schools have already struggled to field enough teachers to staff classes. 

On Tuesday, 28% of the city’s public school students, or more than 260,000 children, were absent — five percentage points better than Monday. Even if school buildings remain open, those absences can have a big effect, as educators struggle to determine what material to teach while so many students are not in school.

Dr. Juan Tapia, a pediatrician in Washington Heights and a member of the nonprofit physicians network SOMOS, said increases in infections are “bound to occur” because of the contagiousness of the omicron variant.

All public school staff are required to be vaccinated, but students are not — and nearly 44% of city residents between the ages of 5 and 17 are unvaccinated, city data show. That may be fueling an increase in hospitalizations among children, but experts have also emphasized that omicron does not appear to cause more severe cases among kids and appears to be milder among those who are fully vaccinated.

The cases appear to be “less severe, and the worst outcomes are not rising at the same level as the new cases,” Tapia said.

Beginning Monday, officials tweaked certain safety rules to help counteract the surge of cases.

The city has increased the number of students subject to random testing, doubling the number of students who are eligible and including students regardless of vaccination status. Previously, 10% of unvaccinated students who consented were subject to testing. The program still only tests students who have consented, and roughly 64% of the city’s students have not done so.

The city is also instituting a “test-to-stay” policy, which allows classmates of someone who tests positive to remain in school instead of issuing wider quarantine orders, as long as they test negative twice over five days and remain symptom-free. The city has distributed 2.1 million at-home tests for the program so far, officials said. School staff should also be given two at-home tests per week in January even if they’re not feeling sick.

Susan Hassig, assistant professor of epidemiology at Tulane University, generally applauded the changes in safety protocols but said city officials should ensure that staff can also get tested at school, on top of the at-home test kits they’re receiving. (Staff can now be tested at school if they consent, but only if the testing company has the capacity.) The plan to provide at-home tests to those exposed to COVID in the classroom is “going to make a big difference,” so long as the results are faithfully reported, Hassig said.

Some educators remain skeptical that the changes are enough to protect school communities. At two co-located middle schools in Brooklyn — Sunset Park Prep and Charles Dewey — most educators called out sick on Tuesday.

The teachers union chapter leader at Charles Dewey said it was largely in protest of what many educators in the building viewed as lax safety rules. That teacher and one other from the building said they want the city to make rapid at-home testing more widely available for all students and staff, regardless of whether they have symptoms or are exposed to the virus. They also want schools to provide high-quality masks to students, not just teachers.

Asked about the consequences of missed instruction caused by the sickout, one of the teachers said all those who called out sick had posted work online for students to access. Another said it was essential to draw attention to safety issues.

“In order to get change of any sort you have to disrupt the current system, that’s the only way people are heard,” the chapter leader said. The teachers said they plan to return on Wednesday.

An administrator on the campus who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal said more than 80% of educators called out. The staff crunch forced the school to collapse classrooms, putting up to 35 students in a room with minimal social distancing. The education department sent dozens of central staffers to the building, but only a handful had teaching licenses, meaning they could not cover many classes, the administrator said.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the union that represents principals and other school administrators, visited the campus on Tuesday.

“Our biggest concern safety-wise is staffing more so than anything else,” he said.

Katie O’Hanlon, an education department spokesperson, emphasized that some staff who called out sick were not teachers and the replacement staff were able to help with student arrival and administrative work, in addition to some classroom coverage.

“We quickly deploy qualified substitutes or central staff when needed to ensure our schools remain open and all students can continue to get the in-person supports that are critical for their well-being and cannot be replicated outside the classroom,” O’Hanlon said in a statement.

The department also pledged to more quickly release figures about how many students and staff report positive coronavirus cases. The city previously publicly posted that information each evening, but had not updated its website since Dec. 30. The information will once again be publicly released online each day starting Wednesday, officials said.

Families also briefly stopped getting emails from the Situation Room about positive cases. Those daily updates about the number of cases in each school would resume this week, officials said.

“Under our Stay Safe, Stay Open plan, we reopened our schools by ramping up testing sites, making 1.5 million rapid test kits available to students and staff, and encouraging all our community members to get tested over break to identify cases,” said Nathaniel Styer, an education department spokesperson. “We will not compromise on our safety measures nor our drive to safely keep schools open.”

 Christina Veiga and Reema Amin contributed.

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