About 8 percent of New York City public school students were tested for COVID at school during their first week back from winter recess. That’s up from just 5 percent in the weeks leading up to the holiday break.
The uptick in testing coincides with a policy change by the education department as part of New York City Mayor Eric Adams’s “Stay Safe and Stay Open” plan. Officials promised to double in-school testing and include vaccinated students in surveillance testing.
How has that plan shaken out?
A WNYC/Gothamist analysis of education department testing data finds that the city fell short of its new goal for students but showed a large rise in testing for teachers. About 70% more students were tested the week of January 3rd compared to the week of December 13th. But only a third of students have opted in to the testing program, limiting the city’s ability to monitor COVID transmission overall, experts say.
Staff testing, meanwhile, more than doubled during the same period, even though the city has not set a new goal for them. Previously, the onsite program officially included only staff who were not fully inoculated, though some vaccinated teachers got tested anyway as a precaution against breakthrough infections. But after pressure from advocates and the United Federation of Teachers, the education department agreed in early December to allow staff testing to continue as a “courtesy,” albeit with limits that some teachers say make it difficult in practice to get tested onsite.
Before winter recess, the New York City Department of Education aimed to test 10% of unvaccinated students who’d opted in, prompting criticism from parents, teachers and experts. Under the new system, each school will aim to test a group that’s equal to 20 percent of its number of unvaccinated students. But that surveillance group can now include vaccinated students, too.
But the pool of students — unvaccinated or vaccinated — who’ve opted in is small, and there’s wide variation between schools. Out of 1,575 schools for which data was available, WNYC/Gothamist identified more than 260 schools that tested fewer than 5% of all their students during the first week of the new testing program. The percentages were calculated based on the most recent school-level enrollment data available, which is from the 2020-2021 school year. Enrollment numbers at many schools have likely changed since then. For elementary schools, these figures also include 3-K, pre-K and kindergarten students, who are not eligible for school testing.
Broad and frequent COVID-19 testing is critical for keeping schools open safely, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s been a part of New York City schools’ COVID strategy since students first returned to the classroom. Alongside the increase in in-school tests, the education department now distributes at-home test kits to students after a classmate tests positive.
COVID-19 cases have continued to rise in New York City schools, driven to new heights by the highly contagious omicron variant. More than 110,000 students — 11 percent of the total public school student body — and 34,000 staff members have tested positive since the start of the school year in September 2021.
Asked to comment on the findings, education department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer noted that lower attendance during the first week back from break could affect the number of students who were tested.
“Our surveillance testing program is the largest in the nation — far larger than the CDC or state recommends — and testing remains core to our goal of identifying cases, stopping transmission, and keeping schools safe,” he added.
Mayor Eric Adams has stressed the need to keep schools open, particularly for students in low-income and Black and brown communities. But attendance has been down since students returned from winter recess, education department data shows; more than 200,000 students missed school last Wednesday alone. Adams later said that he would consider a remote option for students who need it, and on Friday, the education department tweaked its attendance policy to allow teachers to mark students “present” if they’re learning remotely.
Attendance and demographic data provided by the education department shows that on one day last week, schools with 10% or fewer white students reported 68% attendance on average. That’s lower than the 76% reported by schools with a higher proportion of white students.
This analysis relies on demographic data from the 2020-2021 school year and doesn’t shed light on the reasons behind the disparity. But Black and Hispanic New Yorkers have suffered disproportionately from the worst outcomes of COVID, and Black New Yorkers have the lowest vaccination rate citywide, putting them at further risk of severe disease and death.
This story has been updated.