Testing students through the city’s randomized testing program will become an even greater priority when New York City public schools reopen, said Mayor Bill de Blasio, shortly after he announced that schools will close and students will move to full remote learning on Thursday, November 19th. Any reopening plan will require more consent forms submitted to schools, de Blasio said, as data released to Gothamist/WNYC shows low student participation in the testing program.

“I guarantee you that plan will be an even heavier emphasis on testing and therefore want to say to everyone in the school communities, starting with parents and kids,” de Blasio said at a news conference on Wednesday. “When we reopen, everyone who comes into that building, all of those kids have to have a testing consent on file. Testing is going to become more of the norm.”

De Blasio raised this concern because the current participation rate for students in the testing program is low with the majority of in-person learners yet to submit the required consent forms needed for the program, and data also shows that just a fraction of students have been tested.

Figures released to Gothamist/WNYC by the Department of Education show that 117,000 of the roughly 280,000 students enrolled for in-person learning have handed in the permissions slips for the monthly tests, leaving administrators waiting on 163,000 students to submit their forms. Further, only 52,033 students have been tested so far. The data on the number of tests given does not delineate whether one student had been tested multiple times.

The testing program began on October 9th, nearly two weeks after the first wave of in-person learners arrived at school. The program, which was required by the state in order to reopen, seeks to test 10% to 20% of students and staffers per school, depending on the size of the school population. The United Federation of Teachers union also pushed for the monthly testing as part of its agreement on school reopening.

The data provided suggests a low participation rate of students getting tested, potentially skewing the picture of how prevalent COVID-19 rates are in school communities. De Blasio has pointed to the low positivity rates as evidence that schools are safe, a claim bolstered by a growing body of evidence from schools across the globe. And many parents also invoke the apparently low in-school test rate—at .19% according to the Schools Chancellor on Wednesday -- when arguing that the mayor should abandon the 3% trigger for shuttering the system

The city reached a seven-day rolling average COVID-19 positivity rate of 3% on Wednesday, triggering the citywide closing of public school buildings. The 3% threshold was agreed upon by the city and various unions representing teachers, principals, and schools support staff during negotiations to reopen schools in September.

DOE officials initially called this mandatory testing, but revised the term “mandatory” after noting that the school cannot physically force students to be tested. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has said that students who repeatedly decline to be tested will be asked to switch to remote learning.

Though more than 140,000 tests have been performed across the system, it’s unclear where these tests are being performed. Teachers and administrators at multiple schools said there’s been scant participation by their students.

Jessica Byrne, president of the Community Education Council representing District 22 in Brooklyn, raised concerns at the city’s Panel for Educational Policy Tuesday night.

"What concerns me the most is that the COVID testing, the random sampling tests that are happening at schools don't seem to be happening in a way that is proper,” Byrne said. “I also feel that these sample sizes are far too low. If we have 300 students that are showing up for blended, only 30 students are getting tested a week. And if you have three students test positive out of thirty it looks like ten percent of the student body is testing positive."

“Testing of children is not happening,” said one Bronx assistant principal. She said the only testing that occurred at her school was on a day when no students were present. “No child has ever been tested” at her school, she emphasized. The administrator added her school has already had to close for two weeks because of positive cases, but believes that schools are relatively safe and should remain open.

“Testing keeps our communities safe, transmission low, and makes in-person learning possible—we need everyone in our school communities to participate,” Nathaniel Styer, a spokesperson for the DOE, wrote in a statement, adding that the city has the most comprehensive school-based testing regimen in the country.

Issues with testing are particularly acute in at least some District 75 schools serving students with special needs, teachers said. Teachers at multiple District 75 schools -- which are open to students upwards of five days a week -- told Gothamist/WNYC that few or no students at all have been tested so far.

“There has been no testing of D75 students unless the student was sent home with symptoms or voluntarily taken to be tested by a guardian outside of school,” one teacher, who asked to remain anonymous because she’s unauthorized to speak to the press, told Gothamist via email. “Keep in mind these are also D75 students with “severe disabilities,” who have a hard time wearing a mask and get one on one support for most of their day in school. If any of them has covid there is little that can be done to protect us except our own masks and PPE.”

Another teacher at a D75 school in Brooklyn told Gothamist that students there have not been tested since the start of the school year, even as students at the co-located school have received testing.

“Most students in D75 have not been tested, even if the schools are in the yellow zone,” the teacher said, referring to the zones with high infection rates created by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The teacher added that 15 staffers at her school were tested two weeks ago, with ten still waiting on their results.

The DOE did not immediately respond to questions on whether the sample testing size can adequately measure positivity rates in schools and why some District 75 students haven’t been tested. According to last year’s enrollment figures, 87% of District 75 students are non-white and nearly 87% live below the poverty line.