New York City public school students and staff will return on January 3rd, as planned, with the city doubling COVID-19 surveillance testing capacity for both vaccinated and unvaccinated students and staff, and distributing at-home test kits to people exposed to the virus in city classrooms, state and city officials said Tuesday morning.
The announcement comes after weeks of calls from public school parents and staff that the city’s existing testing policy was woefully inadequate in the face of the new, highly contagious omicron variant.
In addition to ramping up surveillance testing in K-12 public schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio said anytime someone tests positive for COVID-19 in a classroom, students and staff will get two at-home test kits to use over the course of seven days. Anyone exposed in the classroom can continue going to school as long as they test negative.
“This guarantees consistency in their education,” de Blasio said. “It guarantees fewer disruptions which parents have rightfully said have been a tremendous challenge for them.”
Governor Kathy Hochul, who announced Monday that one million at-home test kits would be headed to NYC schools, and Mayor-elect Eric Adams also appeared with de Blasio for the briefing.
Some critics, including comptroller-elect Brad Lander, had been calling for the city to boost testing for students and staff ahead of the January 3rd return to classes, but de Blasio insisted the city would wait until teachers and students were back in classrooms to begin the new testing regime.
“Schools have been incredibly safe. We want a smooth return to school,” he said. “We think this approach is the right way to do it.”
Ahead of the holiday break, hundreds of classrooms were already shut down due to COVID-19 infections and eight schools were fully closed down to students. Vaccinated staff were largely unable to get tested for COVID-19 despite the surge in breakthrough infections. Teachers were forced to line up in long lines with the members of the general public for a limited number of PCR tests and at-home kits if they’d been exposed.
Another concern raised among staff and parents was the less than a quarter of city students who had opted into regular COVID-19 testing. At Tuesday’s press conference, de Blasio said the number of students opting into routine testing was now up to about 330,000 public school students, or 35 percent of the city's 940,000 students. De Blasio said he expected that number to increase now that vaccinated children could also opt into testing.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Michael Mulgrew, the head of the United Federation of Teachers, though he added he was frustrated teachers and parents had to resort to a public campaign to push the city to ramp up COVID-19 testing in schools.
Mulgrew said they were still hammering out logistics with the Education Department about what to do when a student tests positive for COVID-19 with an at-home kit. He added he thought the city should immediately run a public campaign to get more people to opt their children in for routine COVID-19 testing, in order for the surveillance testing to be more effective.
“We’re happy that we now have a plan that makes sense,” he said. “Now we gotta make it real."
Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, an epidemiology professor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, welcomed the planned increase in testing in city schools.
“Getting your child vaccinated, opting in for the testing, these are things that parents and guardians can do now to ensure there will be a safe return to school for everybody,” El-Sadr said. "It is critical to do both.”
This story has been updated with new information.