In the third school year of the pandemic, masks are no longer mandatory for most students and could soon be completely optional for all kids. Quarantine lengths have gotten shorter. And the number of positive cases required to close a classroom has increased.

The New York City school system has continued to adjust its protocols for handling COVID cases among students and teachers as Mayor Eric Adams and his administration push the city to reopen. Here’s where things stand as of March 30th:

EXPOSURE

Since mask mandates have been dropped for kindergarten through 12th grade, the Department of Education now considers anyone in a classroom with a positive case to be a close contact. Students are sent home with rapid COVID tests and instructed to take two tests in five days. Kids who aren’t displaying symptoms can continue to attend school, regardless of vaccination status.

If students are exposed to COVID-19 outside of school, the DOE said they can continue to attend school if they are fully vaccinated and do not have any symptoms. Students who are not fully vaccinated (including the pre-K and 3K students who are too young to be vaccinated) must quarantine for five days if they are exposed outside of school — they need only be asymptomatic to return to class on Day 6.

Kids who are younger than 2 years old and enrolled in a DOE program must quarantine a full 10 days if exposed to COVID-19, but can present a negative test result to return on Day 8. These kids must be tested by a healthcare provider instead of using home tests. 

New York City Department of Education
New York City Department of Education

EXITING QUARANTINE

All fully-vaccinated DOE staff and K-12 students who have tested positive for COVID will be required to quarantine at home for five days. If on the fifth day the student tests negative, that child may return to school but must wear a mask “at all times on school property” until Day 10 after their initial diagnosis. The quarantine policy applies to all students regardless of vaccination status.

K-12 students who still test positive on Day 5 are required to quarantine until “symptoms have improved AND [the] child may return to school if they are fever-free for the past 24 hours without the use of medicine OR have isolated for a full 10 days,” the DOE said.

Children in pre-K or younger who test positive for COVID-19 are required to quarantine for a full 10 days.

CLASSROOM CLOSURES

The DOE has set the threshold for closing a classroom at 10 COVID cases, after previously not releasing its threshold number for closures at the start of the school year. (During the 2020-2021 school year, entire schools closed down when there were four school-linked cases across different classrooms within a week.)

MASKING

Mayor Eric Adams has lifted the mask mandate for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. He has promised to eliminate the mask mandate for students in 3K and pre-K on April 4th if COVID rates remain low in the city. 

“Over the next two weeks, we will continue to watch the numbers closely as we have throughout our pandemic response. And if we see the levels of risk rise, either before or after the mandate is lifted, we may be here having another conversation," said city Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan during a March 22 press conference. "However, right now, we feel comfortable saying that if the risk level holds, masks can become optional."

The Department of Health said the city’s levels of risk are measured according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definitions of COVID-19 Community Levels, which prioritizes hospitalizations and severe disease alongside cases. Based on this readout, New York City is currently at a low level of risk as of March 30, but Manhattan is approaching medium risk based on a recent uptick in cases.

“The levels track low, medium, high, and very high risk. They don’t trigger an automatic policy response, but they do help guide the public and provide thresholds we’re working to stay below,” said DOH spokesperson Patrick Gallahue in an email statement.

He did not answer questions about what specific threshold of risk could trigger the Adams administration to retain the mask mandate for the 3K and pre-K populations, or what it would take to reinstate the mask mandate for school communities.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

IN-SCHOOL TESTING

The DOE’s in-school surveillance testing program is continuing, though it remains limited by the number of students who consent to participate. The testing program is only available to K-12 students. 

The city announced that the testing program this year will test both vaccinated and unvaccinated kids in an effort to double the number of participants, though the consent requirement means the same pool of students are tested each week — as of December, there were about 330,000 students, out of the nearly 940,000 total, who consented to the testing program.

This story has been updated to clarify the protocol for returning to school after outside exposure to COVID-19.