In just over a month, the nation’s largest school system is poised to return to something like normal schooling, when full-time, in-person classes begin, without a remote option.
But as the Delta variant and lagging vaccination rates have fueled a rise in coronavirus cases in New York City, some families and educators are wondering if a school reopening plan that seemed like a sure bet just a few weeks ago will be threatened. For now, at least, Mayor Bill de Blasio has insisted that there will be no major changes.
Still, his administration must settle on key details on how often students and staffers should be tested for the virus, and how to approach quarantining when positive cases arise.
Here’s what we know — and what we still don’t know — about New York’s effort to reopen its schools this fall.
Every school will be open
Mr. de Blasio is planning to fully open all 1,800 public schools in New York City for full-time, in-person instruction five days a week.
As of now, only immunocompromised children will be able to learn remotely, under an existing program the city has that allows children who cannot safely attend school to receive in-person instruction in their homes. That program is typically quite small and will remain so this year, though city officials expect more students to be eligible during the pandemic than in previous years.
Masks and vaccinations
Though debates about mask mandates in schools are raging in other parts of the country, New York has already announced that all students, teachers and staff will have to wear masks during the school day, regardless of vaccination status.
All teachers will have to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing by the start of school, Mr. de Blasio has announced. It’s possible that the city will mandate vaccines for teachers before the first day of school or sometime later this fall. Over the weekend, Randi Weingarten, who runs the country’s second-largest teachers’ union, said districts should require teachers to get the shot. Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City teachers’ union, has not yet committed to supporting a mandate. But he has already told his members to prepare for that possibility.
At least 60 percent of teachers have been vaccinated, according to the city, but the actual percentage is almost certainly higher, since those numbers don’t reflect educators who got their shots outside of New York City. Mr. Mulgrew said his union believes the true percentage is between 70 and 80 percent, and said there were problems with tracking during the first weeks that teachers were eligible this past winter.
There are no vaccination requirements for eligible students. Nearly half of New York City children 12 and above have been vaccinated so far, but the city does not yet know how many of those children attend public schools.
Children under 12 may become eligible for vaccination sometime later this year.
The city has upgraded and fixed ventilation systems in many city schools since last summer, and custodians have been checking each building again this summer to make sure make sure all repairs are done before the start of classes. All classrooms will also have two air purifiers this year.
Delta brings uncertainty
Parents and teachers have good reason to be skeptical of the city’s pronouncements on school reopening. Mr. de Blasio twice delayed the start of in-person classes last summer, just days before classrooms were set to open, prompting huge confusion.
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But that does not mean a major shift in the city’s strategy is likely this year.
Mr. de Blasio has staked New York’s recovery — and much of his own legacy — on successfully reopening the nation’s largest school system. Conversations with his aides suggest that the mayor is not rethinking his plan to eliminate remote learning, despite the increase in virus cases. The mayor has said in news conferences that he is adamant that all students should return to in-person classes.
The mayor does not face substantial political pressure to delay classes or add a full-time remote option, since there’s much more support for school reopening from parents, teachers and unions now than there was last summer. But that could shift in the coming weeks if the virus situation worsens.
President Biden has said he believes every school in America should be open for in-person classes this year, and the city has received an influx of federal dollars to keep schools safe. At this time last year, Mr. Mulgrew was loudly questioning whether schools would be safe for any classroom instruction. Now, the unions representing teachers and principals are on board with the mayor’s plan.
That’s partially because school reopening is no longer an experiment. City schools saw extremely low transmission throughout last school year, even before teachers and students were eligible for the shot. The in-school positivity rate was .03 percent in June.
Crucial details not finalized yet
The city is still negotiating with unions about how it will approach random in-school testing and, when positive cases arise, quarantining students and staff members.
Last year, the city randomly tested 20 percent of students in all schools every week, and schools that had several cases were forced to either quarantine individual classrooms or temporarily shut down entirely.
That led to such frequent closures that many parents argued that schools were barely open. The mayor eventually raised the number of positive cases that would trigger a closure, but some parents are hoping that vaccinated students and teachers will not have to quarantine this year. Mr. Mulgrew, on the other hand, said he wants the same rules in place on testing and quarantining as last school year.
Whatever the mayor decides, the announcement will almost certainly infuriate at least some teachers and parents.
Even if the city gets rid of a numerical threshold to close schools or exempts vaccinated people, the Department of Education will still need to come up with a way for quarantined students to learn online until they can return to in-person classes.
It’s likely that students under quarantine will learn online for a few days with teachers from their own schools, but educators said they urgently need more details in order to plan for the fall.
Social distancing questions
The vast majority of city schools will be able to accommodate all students while maintaining three feet of distance.
But there are some schools — about 60 according to city officials, but as many as 200 according to the U.F.T. — that are too overcrowded to keep children and teachers three feet part. In those schools, which include many high schools, principals will try to separate children as much as possible wherever possible. But there will be less than three feet of distance in at least some classrooms and common areas, depending on the building.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised that three feet is optimal, but that schools should prioritize in-person learning without it. Education officials are working on plans for some overcrowded schools to use annex space, and many schools will use gyms and auditoriums as overflow classroom space. Many principals are still trying to figure out how to keep children separated at lunch, when they won’t be able to wear masks, by using outdoor space or serving lunch in classrooms.
Public health experts said they are confident that even schools that can’t maintain three feet of distance can be safe, as long as other safety protocols are followed.
“Each layer of protection makes a difference. Avoiding crowding, good ventilation, consistent mask-wearing, vaccinating everyone who is eligible, regular testing and symptom screening all contribute to Covid safety in schools, even if no single layer of protection is perfect,” said Anna Bershteyn, an assistant professor of population health at N.Y.U.’s Grossman School of Medicine.
Ms. Bershteyn’s own son is attending summer classes in New York City now, and she started sending him to school double-masked once the virus numbers began to tick up.
“Although there is a downside to having more kids in a space, the upside of giving all kids a chance to have full-time in-person school outweighs that downside,” she said, adding that her son is thrilled to be back in school.