The city will temporarily close a Bronx school after two staffers there were confirmed to have COVID-19, the city Department of Education announced Friday.
The closure of P.S. X811 The Academy for Career and Living Skill in the Bronx for 24 hours follows the protocol set by the DOE for handling cases in school communities. Two or more cases in one school that isn't linked to a classroom or shared space triggers a temporary closure.
The DOE said there are currently 17 other confirmed cases of staffers with COVID-19, but they are all different school buildings, unlike P.S. X811, so those buildings will not need to close.
“As we get ready for in-person learning, we’ll stop at nothing to ensure principals, teachers, and school staff have the protections they need to stay safe and prepare for the school year,” said Miranda Barbot, spokesperson for the DOE, in an email. “While we continue to navigate the realities of a pandemic, there will be positive cases—we are putting people’s health above everything else by quickly identifying and isolating positive cases, which is a leading effort to prevent transmission.”
While the DOE didn’t explicitly state what happens to the P.S. X811 building during the 24-hour closure, in the spring before schools shut down they cleaned buildings and contact-traced among school communities where cases were reported.
Barbot said the 19 confirmed cases come out of 15,000 DOE employees who have been tested so far, as teachers came back to classrooms this week to prepare for the September 21st first day of school. The DOE has some 146,000 employees total, according to the Citizens Budget Commission.
While testing of teachers, staff and students is a critical component of the school reopening plan, some educators are criticizing the DOE over delayed testing results and failure to quickly communicate about positive cases.
Staff at IS 230 in Jackson Heights refused to enter their school building Friday after learning a colleague tested positive Thursday, and said the school administration didn’t notify the staff until Friday morning.
“Staff informally spread the word” of the positive case, said IS 230 special education teacher Chris DeRosa, who is also a delegate for the United Federation of Teachers union.
“As of 10 p.m. (Thursday) there was no official email or notification from anyone at the school. No one was warned that if you’re in contact with this individual maybe you should avoid large crowds, maybe you should avoid going home to your children or elderly family members,” he said.
DeRosa also said he’s frustrated that the staffer who tested positive at a city-run site still has to have the results confirmed by the DOE — an extra step that further delays notification, he said.
“If a doctor says, if a hospital says, you tested positive for COVID, why should anyone have to wait for someone else to say ‘yep that’s what it says’?,” DeRosa said. “It’s absurd, it’s really absurd.”
The IS 230 staffer even got tested at a DOE-designated test site “and got her results right as school dismissed” Thursday, said UFT spokesperson Alison Gendar in a statement. “She was not interviewed by a NYC DOH nurse until around 10 a.m. this morning.”
The DOE’s protocol requires the city’s Test and Trace Corps begin investigating a self-reported positive COVID-19 case within three hours of the initial report.
Art teacher Irene Savage said she spent about two hours in a classroom with the positive staffer Thursday, and has yet to be contacted by Test and Trace investigators as of Friday afternoon. The lack of transparency makes her question the rest of the DOE’s protocols, she said. “I find it unsettling especially given that all staff were told we could return to the building. How do we know the school was actually deep cleaned and sanitized?”
The testing protocol was a key part of the UFT agreeing to the school reopening plan, with the union pressuring Mayor Bill de Blasio to delay reopening schools in order to set up a testing strategy, to train teachers in remote instruction, and to better prepare schools. The city ultimately agreed to conduct random testing in schools of both students and staff, with 10-20% of each school community chosen for testing each month. The test result delays may mean schools may not actually open on September 21st, UFT president Michael Mulgrew said to PIX 11 Thursday.
“The whole idea of our testing program is we have to have results within 24-48 hours. These tests happened last week, we’re just getting the results now,” he said in the interview, calling the delays "disturbing."
"If they can't follow (the plan), then we know we're going to have a fight about not opening," Mulgrew said.
Another teacher wrote to Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza that she went to get tested at a DOE-designated site in Ridgewood a week ago — and still hasn’t received her results. The testing site told her “they are behind on testing and do not know when the results will be in,” wrote the teacher, who didn’t want to be identified. “I believe that the DOE should set up another round of testing for teachers and students.”
"We've worked to make testing as fast and convenient for school-based staff across the city and the results have paid off, with over 95% of tests coming back within 48 hours,” said Avery Cohen, spokesperson for the mayor’s office, in an email. “We're committed to testing every last case of the virus, and will continue to work in lockstep with UFT to ensure we are doing everything in our power to make schools safe. Our students and teachers deserve nothing less."
One question unanswered has been how the city will be notified when DOE employees test positive. The DOE said Friday its employees can self-report positive diagnoses, or the city can have cases reported by contact tracing investigations. DOE cases will then be handled by the city’s new Situation Room rapid response team, which will launch next week with staff from the Test and Trace Corps and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.