The city Department of Education plans to adopt a phased-in approach to randomized COVID-19 testing for students and staff at all public schools, set to launch next week.

The new rollout comes just over a month from when Mayor Bill de Blasio first announced mandatory randomized testing for students, which generated criticism from parents and elected officials who opposed this protocol after learning that students won't be tested in front of their parents.

Update: Under the random testing program, schools will ask students to submit signed consent forms to allow testing with a shallow nose swab if the student is selected to participate in the monthly testing. As the DOE's website says, "to have an accurate understanding of each school population, testing for this program must be performed on a single day, in the school building, and by one provider." Outside test results will not count.

While families who do not give permission will ultimately be switched to full-time remote learning, the DOE intends to offer them multiple opportunities to get accustomed to the idea, city officials said.

DOE officials said this approach is to ensure families have several chances to submit their forms — if too many students ultimately do not submit their forms and the school community fails to meet its required sample proportion, those students will be switched to full-time remote learning.

“Testing keeps our communities safe, transmission low, and makes in-person learning possible—we need everyone in our school communities to participate," said DOE spokesperson Miranda Barbot in an email statement. "Starting next week, it will be mandatory for schools to participate in our random testing program. This is a brand-new endeavor and we will do everything we can to make sure it’s a success.”

The city's school system has reopened for in-person learning in staggered schedules, with the last phase taking place on Thursday for middle and high schools.

The random testing of 10-20% of each school’s staff and student body is meant to provide an appropriate sample size of the population, the DOE said. They anticipate that:

  • For a school with a base population of 0-499 = 20%
  • For a school with a base population of 500-999 = 15%
  • For a school with a base population of >1000 = 10%

The testing will apply to all students in first grade and up. The DOE plans to notify students and families of the scheduled testing about two days before the testing date as a way of slowly introducing the new protocol, education officials said. “Our aim is to receive as many forms as possible at the start of the year, and we acknowledge that additional forms may trickle in over the first few weeks,” Barbot added.

The DOE noted that staff are also required to submit consent forms and will be placed on unpaid leave if they don’t comply, as per an agreement with the United Federation of Teachers union which had pushed for mandatory random testing as a condition of their agreement for in-person schooling.

“We expect the DOE to meet the standards of the agreement,” the UFT’s president Michael Mulgrew said of the random testing program.

Meanwhile, as COVID-19 rates are slowly increasing in some parts of the city, Mulgrew continued his calls to shut schools in the affected communities and switch to all-remote until rates decrease. The UFT planned to hold a rally Friday afternoon at FDR High School in Mapleton, a Brooklyn neighborhood with increasing rates of COVID-19, once again calling on the city to allow those schools to switch to all-remote learning.

De Blasio has vowed to shut the school system down if citywide rates exceed 3 percent positivity over a 7-day rolling average. On Friday, de Blasio also said on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC that the new clusters don't reflect what's happening city-wide. "If you look at the vast majority of the city right now most neighborhoods are at 1 % or less," de Blasio said. The citywide seven-day average positivity was 1.5% on Friday.

“I will absolutely be ready to act school by school as needed,” he added, but did not specify if he intended to take action immediately.

As de Blasio celebrated the reopening of the city's 1,600 public schools, the city also shut down the John F. Kennedy Jr. School in Elmhurst on September 29th until October 13th after two unconnected cases were reported there as per the DOE’s protocols for containing COVID-19 cases in school communities.