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COVID cases have already closed hundreds of NYC charter school classrooms

A mask sits next to a student as they complete a worksheet. The photo is zoomed in on the worksheet and the student’s hands.
It’s almost impossible to tell how often charter school students and staff are testing positive for COVID across the sector and how many times classrooms have been shuttered since they began reopening more than a month ago.
Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat

Just one week after Jacqueline Etienne-Votor sent her daughter back to Success Academy Ditmas Park Middle School in early August, she received a letter from the school: A community member tested positive for COVID-19.

Etienne-Votor’s daughter wasn’t a close contact of the person who tested positive, the letter said, and the fifth grader did not have to quarantine. Still, the note was worrying — and Etienne-Votor has since received a second notice of another infection at the school.

“It activated my anxiety,” Etienne-Votor said. “The kids are traveling from class to class, how are they really tracking that to see who came into contact with who?”

Parents at a wide range of charter schools have already been notified of virus cases. Across 140 charter schools that operate in city buildings serving roughly 65,000 students, 179 students and 78 staff tested positive between early August and early September, according to the city’s health department. That has forced 263 classrooms to close temporarily so students can quarantine. There have been no closures of entire buildings among those schools so far. (City officials could not say how many staff are employed at those schools.)

The numbers may offer a preview of what’s to come this fall, as the city prepares to welcome nearly a million students back to classrooms on Sept. 13. Public health experts said the data may suggest that infections have not run rampant among students, as just .27% have tested positive so far.

“This is not a smoking gun number,” Anna Bershteyn, an assistant professor of population health at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, said of the .27% figure. “It’s not pointing to schools as causing a higher prevalence.”

But those infections are still leading to significant disruptions to learning as a positive case can close an entire classroom. And the data come with significant limitations.

The figures only account for roughly half of all charter schools, as they only include those that operate in city buildings as opposed to private spaces. Officials said they are compiling more complete figures across all charter schools but could not yet share them.

It is not clear how many of those 65,000 students have actually been tested. Though charter schools report positive cases to the city, there is no consistent testing protocol across charter schools; some are testing all students at the beginning of the year or conducting random testing, while others aren’t operating any testing of their own. And officials could not say how many of the 65,000 students have attended school in person, though it’s likely most have.

It’s difficult to know exactly how common coronavirus cases are at individual schools or charter networks, and some charters declined to provide any information in response to Chalkbeat requests. The city collects school-level data and publishes it online, but it only provides a snapshot of current closures and cases,and officials did not provide a complete school-level data set since charters began reopening.

Some public health experts said the city should better track and publicize information about coronavirus infections across the entire charter sector, since that information could help inform the city’s own safety policies as district schools begin to reopen. It also could offer valuable information to the public.

“We’re in crisis mode — everything we do we have to take as an opportunity for more data and more evaluation,” said Benjamin Linas, an epidemiologist at Boston University. “I think that is a missed opportunity.”

Limited data

Chalkbeat contacted five major charter networks to request more detailed data on coronavirus cases among students and staff and information about how many classrooms have been closed.

Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network and among the first to reopen, has temporarily closed 150 classrooms due to positive coronavirus cases since reopening to students on Aug. 2, or roughly 22% of the network’s classrooms, officials said. All but two of the network’s 47 schools have had at least one classroom closure.

Spokesperson Ann Powell said that as of mid-August fewer than 1% of Success students and staff have tested positive, and virus cases have fallen by half in the last two weeks compared with the opening three weeks of the school year. The network has not conducted random testing of its own, though families and staff report positive cases if they get tested elsewhere, which Success then reports to the city.

Powell also noted the network has mandated vaccinations for staff members, requires universal masking, is taking efforts to maintain three feet of distance when possible, and encouraging frequent hand washing.

Achievement First, which operates 24 schools in New York City, had 16 coronavirus cases among students and staff between early August and early September, a spokesperson said. Those positive cases have resulted in classroom closures or quarantines at three of its schools as of Sept 3.

Other networks offered no information whatsoever. KIPP, which tested every student across its 18 schools during the first week and subsequently tests 10% of students each week, did not provide any data about the results of that testing or how many classrooms the network has closed. A KIPP spokesperson said the network’s operations team was too busy to provide the information.

A spokesperson for Uncommon Schools, which operates 24 schools, said the network was not tracking positive cases centrally and did not provide any data. Officials at Ascend, which runs 15 schools, declined to provide any data about virus cases or classroom closures.

Quarantine policies are shifting

In a system as large as New York City, and with varying vaccination and infection rates by neighborhood, there will likely be a range of quarantine and closure rates at different schools. So far, some charter schools have been able to open without disruption.

“Right now, knock on wood, things are good,” said Arthur Samuels, executive director of Math, Engineering, and Science Academy, a Brooklyn high school. “We haven’t had any issues.”

There may soon be more widespread coronavirus testing among charter schools, which could provide a clearer picture of infection rates across the sector. After charter leaders prevailed in a lawsuit, the city is now required to give charters access to its school testing program, which will test 10% of unvaccinated people in schools every other week. City officials said charter schools should receive more information about the program this week, though it’s unclear how many schools will participate.

Charter schools have forged their own closure and quarantine policies in the absence of clear guidance when they reopened, meaning different schools may handle positive cases in different ways.

Education department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer said last month that charter schools could establish their own closure and quarantine policies. But city officials have since released closure and quarantine rules for district schools, and Styer said in a recent statement that charter schools in city buildings “must follow all health and safety requirements applicable to other public schools.” (Officials did not immediately say if that meant charter schools would be required to change their quarantine policies.)

Some charters have tweaked their policies since reopening in ways that line up with the district’s quarantine policy. At Success, for instance, vaccinated middle and high school students will no longer need to quarantine if they are exposed to someone who tested positive as long as they aren’t experiencing symptoms. (The network previously considered all middle and high school students in a given classroom as close contacts, Powell said.) The move could help limit disruptions if positive cases emerge.

If charter schools are a harbinger of what’s to come for the hundreds of thousands of students returning to district schools next week, some schools are likely to see coronavirus cases disrupt student learning while others might be relatively unscathed. The big question is how widespread disruptions will be.

“We have the delta variant this time around which is more transmissible,” said Bershteyn, and infections may spike again in the winter. But with vaccinations, “we have more immunity now. It’s hard to know which of those forces win in the end.”

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

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