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In New York, classrooms that once seated 30 children now accommodate nine to allow for social distancing. Masks are required throughout the day, and there is random testing in each school once a month. Over 100,000 tests conducted in more than 2,800 schools over roughly the last month turned up only 174 positive cases.

“What we see so far is that you are less likely to encounter somebody with infection in a school then you would be outside the school and not just by a little, but by a lot,” Dr. Jay Varma, the mayor’s senior adviser for public health, said at a news conference at the end of last month.

Even Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, has acknowledged that schools are safer than he anticipated.

“We thought our biggest problem was going to be the safety,” he said in a recent interview, adding that education officials have been “phenomenal” in addressing those issues. Mr. Mulgrew said he was now concerned about academic quality in schools.

But Mr. Levine, the City Council health committee chairman, said one of the main goals of a school shutdown would be to prevent hundreds of thousands of students, parents and school employees from riding public transport to schools each day while the virus is surging.

“We need people to start limiting their movement again,” he said.

The uncertainty around schools has led to enormous anxiety for educators and parents, who spent the summer unsure if their children would return to classrooms come fall.

But Mr. de Blasio recently announced that parents who have so far opted for remote-only classes would have only one more opportunity to choose in-person learning for the rest of the school year. Families have only until Sunday to decide whether they want their children to have any in-person instruction, probably until at least September.

By the time those children are scheduled to return to classrooms in the next few weeks, the entire school system may already be closed.

Melissa Eddy, Aproova Mandavilli and Kate Taylor contributed reporting.



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