In a reversal, Governor Andrew Cuomo will now allow schools in all counties to remain open even if the seven-day positivity rate for COVID-19 within those counties exceeds 9%, long considered the state's threshold to close schools. The announcement effectively allows the New York City public school system to remain open even as a resurgence of the virus takes hold across several parts of the city.
At a briefing Monday, Cuomo—who first instituted the 9% threshold policy last summer after the state collectively slowed the spread of the virus to a crawl—said schools can remain open if school districts implement testing programs. The news comes amid alarmingly high rates in the Mohawk and Finger Lakes regions in upstate, comprised of a total of 20 counties, where COVID-19 positive test rates on a seven-day average have soared above 10%.
"I understand the primacy and the history of local control of education, I respect it. I gave my opinion but it will be up to the local school districts to decide," Cuomo said.
The seven-day testing positivity rate in New York City remains below 9%, according to the city's estimates, a figure that's significantly higher than the state's seven-day positivity rate for New York City, which stands at 6.24%. The state and city rates have never been in sync, largely because of the method by which testing is tracked.
Even so, Cuomo has lent strong support toward keeping schools reopened, with limited classroom capacity, personal protective equipment, social distancing, and testing in place. On Monday, Cuomo said schools can stay open as long as the positivity rate within any given school is lower than the community in which the school is located.
The news marks a kind of win for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who's long held the belief that schools should remain open for the sake of a child's social and emotional learning despite COVID's resurgence here. De Blasio had ordered closed school buildings for two and a half weeks on November 18th after the city's seven-day positivity rate for closing schools reached 3%.
He reopened schools for students in 3K through fifth grade and with disabilities on December 7th, with at least 250 schools open five days a week for some students. Young students and those with medical conditions have been exempt from having to take a test. The most recent positivity rate for city schools systemwide was 0.68%, before the holiday break.
Middle and high school students will continue to learn remotely as de Blasio has yet to give a date on when they can return to the classroom.
At a news conference Monday morning, following an 11-day holiday break for public schools, de Blasio—who had previously hinted that schools will continue to be open provided there are no confirmed cases at the school—reaffirmed that "the safest place to be in New York City, of course, is our public schools."
"January 4th was the day we plan to come back and we're confident that this is the right way to go. And that testing starts again today. And it will be every school every week to make sure everyone's safe," de Blasio said.
His comments came a day after a faction of members from the United Federation of Teachers union—which sued the city last year to keep schools closed for the semester—called on school buildings to remain closed until virus levels decrease once again. Lydia Howrilka, a member of the group, argues that the testing protocols in place don't go far enough.
But Carly Maready, a member of the parent-led group named #KeepNYCSchoolsOpen, applauded Cuomo's decision. She wants the city to go further by increasing staffing at the Situation Room and reducing quarantine periods from 14 days to 10 days as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.
"If all of the medical experts and everybody's saying schools are safe, be in school, let's do a 10-day quarantine then schools should also follow the 10-day quarantine," Maready, a mother of two children who attends school in Washington Heights, said.
Standing by the UFT faction is its president, Michael Mulgrew, who is now calling on the DOE to close schools if the positivity rate hits 9% citywide, according to the state's data.
“It’s a real problem when the state and city use different measures to determine the rate of coronavirus infection," Mulgrew said in a statement. "Given the fact that all the other communities in the state use the state methodology, New York City should adopt it also. Using that state measure, if the community infection rate in the city hits 9 percent, the safe thing to do is to close the schools, even if the in-school rate is lower."
Mulgrew also urged the city to immediately make the vaccine "available to all school personnel. We can’t let bureaucratic snarls and procedural delays endanger the safety of students, school staff and their families.”
Since the city's randomized testing program began in October, roughly 100,000 students and staffers at public schools have been tested for COVID-19. Students who currently attend schools in-person must agree to be tested or be sent completely to remote learning for the interim.
It doesn't mean they have not been impervious to infection, since more than 100 school buildings remain closed to in-person learning after more than one person was found to be infected. Students and staffers in 370 classrooms are currently self-isolating.
This story has been updated with comments from UFT president Michael Mulgrew.