Students wait for COVID screening forms outside a Queens high school. Unvaccinated but masked students will no longer have to quarantine themselves, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this week. Photo by Gabby Jones / Chalkbeat
After just one week of school, New York City will make a significant change to its COVID quarantine and testing policies with the goal of keeping more students learning in classrooms and aligning more closely with federal guidelines.
Unvaccinated students who are masked and follow three-foot social distancing guidelines will no longer have to self-quarantine if they are in close contact with a positive student, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday. The new rule will begin on September 27, when the vaccination mandate for teachers goes into effect.
COVID tests will be run weekly, starting every two weeks, in all elementary, middle and high schools. Yet only 10% of unvaccinated students whose families consent to the test will be swabbed.
These changes follow guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New York City had started the school year with fewer tests and stricter quarantine rules than those set out by the federal health agency.
De Blasio said the changes were due to the number of students sent home just days after the start of the school year. The new policies “will allow more children to stay safely in the classroom,” he said.
“We’ve seen enough quarantines to think it’s something we want to anticipate and make sure that only those who really need to quarantine are quarantined,” de Blasio said.
What about lunch? Teachers positive for COVID?
There are a few important caveats to the policy.
At lunchtime, when the masks come off, any student who is within six feet of an infected classmate will need to self-quarantine.
In elementary school, an entire class will still be quarantined if an adult in the room tests positive for COVID. In middle and high schools, any unvaccinated student will have to learn at home if an adult in the class tests positive. In doing so, city officials said they were following CDC guidelines, which call on students to self-quarantine whenever they are within six feet of an infected adult. (The city’s interpretation of this rule assumes that each student will have approached within six feet of their teacher.)
Even though cases among adults could force more students into self-quarantine, unions representing teachers and school administrators have fought to get all of their members vaccinated, joining a lawsuit with other municipal unions against the city.
Until the requirement to be vaccinated comes into effect, staff who have not received their vaccines are currently required to show proof of a negative test on a weekly basis.
“Make sure children stay in school”
New York City had started this school year with a more conservative quarantine policy, closing entire classes of elementary school students for 10 days if a person tested positive for the coronavirus. A more complicated approach was taken for middle and high school: Students vaccinated with no symptoms would be allowed to stay in class while those who were not should be quarantined for 10 days unless they got it. a negative test result and can come back sooner.
Dr Dave A. Chokshi, commissioner of the city’s health department, said stepping up testing allows the city to “bring a scalpel” to the quarantine policy. Before the change, many parents and teachers were skeptical that the level of testing conducted in schools – which was lower than what the CDC recommends – was sufficient to keep students safe.
“Taken together, this allows us to strike the balance between keeping children safe while making sure children stay in school,” Chokshi said.
In the week after the school opened to nearly one million students, 592 students and 384 staff tested positive for COVID-19, according to city data. These cases have resulted in 445 full class closings and 326 partial class closings, during which vaccinated students are allowed to continue learning in person even if they have been exposed, as long as they don’t feel sick. There are approximately 65,000 classrooms in city-run schools and city-funded early childhood education centers.
Over the weekend, city officials shut down PS 79, a Manhattan school for children with disabilities, after at least 16 staff tested positive and officials found evidence of transmission. widespread in the building. This was the first complete closure of the school since the start of the school year.
A balancing act
The plan to increase testing comes less than 24 hours after the city’s teachers’ union called for more frequent testing for all students under 12, who are currently not eligible for vaccination.
United Teachers’ Federation president Michael Mulgrew welcomed the move to more frequent testing. But he called it “ill-advised” to change the quarantine rules.
“Maybe in the mayor’s world all the kids keep their distance, wear their masks properly and leave them on all day, but in the real world of our schools, that just isn’t the case, in especially in the many overcrowded schools, ”Mulgrew said in a statement.
The quarantine rule changes announced on Monday will likely result in fewer quarantines.
Many families who criticized the city for putting in place stricter quarantine measures than CDC guidelines called for changes, feared that the city’s initial policy would result in many children staying at home.
At the same time, this decision may raise concern among educators and families about the risks of transmission in classrooms at full capacity.
Less live instruction for quarantined students?
It could also make teaching more difficult when students are sent home. City policy requires elementary students to receive live distance education when an entire class is quarantined. The new quarantine policy, however, makes it more likely that only certain students will be sent home.
In these cases, and in middle and high schools, students are expected to receive support from teachers in the form of ‘office hours’, where they can log in to ask questions or for more intensive help, such as teaching. in small groups. Office hours can be difficult to navigate for young students, and fewer elementary school students may end up receiving synchronous instruction during their quarantine.
“We will continue to provide alternative education for all children who need to go home,” said de Blasio.
Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter stressed that more students will be able to continue learning in classrooms under the new policy.
“It is so important that our school communities remain whole, when possible,” she said. “Allowing vaccinated students to stay in school allows for the continuity of in-person instruction. “
The new policies follow news that the Pfizer vaccine is effective for children aged 5 to 11. De Blasio said he expects “a large number of parents” to research vaccines for their children, and he called on health regulators to quickly approve vaccines for this age group.
Chalkbeat is a non-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.