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NYC schools will reopen in January with increased COVID testing

FRIDAY, APRIL 9, 2021- Brooklyn, New York: Alandinio Cineas (left) 16, works through an algebra problem with his tutor Chahima Dieudonne, 17, at Brooklyn High School for Excellence and Equity in Canarsie. CREDIT: Gabriela Bhaskar for Chalkbeat

A Brooklyn high school in April 2021. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Mayor-elect Eric Adams are ramping up a COVID test-to-stay program.

Gabriela Bhaskar for Chalkbeat

As omicron cases surge in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Mayor-elect Eric Adams doubled down on keeping schools open through increased testing. 

The leaders said Tuesday they will not delay the return of school in the nation’s largest district on Jan. 3 and instead take a new approach that includes sending rapid test kits home with all students and staff when someone in their classroom tests positive. The incoming and outgoing administrations shared a message: “Stay safe, and stay open.”

Under the new plan, students who are asymptomatic and test negative can return to classrooms instead of quarantining at home. They will take another at-home test within a week. 

The state is planning to send 2 million COVID tests to city schools, said Gov. Kathy Hochul, who joined the press conference. In addition to the 1 million kits from the state, the city is planning to procure another 2.5 million kits, officials said.

“We saw the failed experiment,” Hochul said, “with remote teaching and the parents who were just pulling their hair out at kitchen tables.”

Tuesday’s announcement comes after schools saw a spike in cases ahead of the winter break. At least eleven schools were closed that week, and some schools saw staffing shortages and asked students to learn at home.

Roughly 18,700 students — which is under 2% of public school children — have tested positive for the coronavirus this school year and nearly 7,600 staffers have, according to city data. Roughly 98% of close contacts in schools don’t end up catching the virus, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi tweeted.

Public health officials said that most people will likely be exposed to the new highly transmissible omicron variant over the next six to 12 months. While omicron appears to be affecting children more than previous coronavirus variants, vaccinations are preventing serious illness, Hochul said.

“The ones who are getting severely sick so far are only the unvaccinated children,” Hochul said, urging families to vaccinate their children. 

Officials said the city will also test both vaccinated and unvaccinated students, a shift from the past few months when only students who hadn’t received the vaccine were subject to in-school testing. The city wants to double the number of students who are tested each week to 20% up from 10%.

But only students who have consented to testing will get swabbed, so there will be a push to increase the number of students who have consented to testing. As of October, only about 190,000 of nearly 1 million students had consented. De Blasio said Tuesday that about 330,000 had opted into testing.

“We are meeting a surge in the virus with a surge in resources,” said Adams, adding, “When it comes to school or young people, it is critical that education is part of their overall development, their mental health, their social skills. And they are able to learn better when they are in an in person environment.”

Chokshi, who is planning to remain in his role until March, said that the Situation Room’s role will shift. With the change to the city’s quarantine protocols, the city’s inter-agency rapid response team handling test and trace in school communities, will now help principals when there is an “unusually” high number of cases within a classroom or sports team. 

The teachers union was pleased that schools would be receiving increased COVID testing as well as the at-home kits, but still had concerns whether the changes would be ready after the winter break.

“Teachers are prepared to do their jobs starting Jan. 3,” said a statement from United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. “The real issue is whether the city can do its job — ensuring that new testing initiatives are available in every school and an improved Situation Room is actually in place by next week.”

Correction: This article initially stated that the at-home kits were only for students who consented to COVID testing. They will be available to all students.

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