New York City on Thursday released its plan for handling COVID-19 outbreaks in public schools, outlining multiple scenarios and raising the specter of repeated openings and closings of schools this fall as cases are reported and traced.
In a sign of likely pushback from critics and educators, a faction of United Teachers Federation called the plan "confusing and absolutely frightening" in a tweet.
Developed in partnership with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Health + Hospitals and the NYC Test + Trace Corps., the proposal calls for all Department of Education staff members to take a COVID-19 test shortly before the first day of school, the date which has yet to be announced.
“School staff will have priority access for testing at 34 city-run testing locations, with tests provided free of charge and with expedited results. This testing is also available for families citywide,” the DOE said.
The city, however, has struggled in recent weeks with testing turnaround time, with reported backlogs of 7 to 10 days.
Aside from testing, the plan lays out six possible situations involving confirmed infections. They range from a single positive case, in which a classroom will close for 14 days and students and staff with close contact will self-quarantine, to at least two cases in different classrooms. Under the latter scenario, the entire school would shut down and transition to remote learning.
The plan also spells out a process for responding to individuals who report feeling sick while at school. Students experiencing symptoms will be separated and monitored by a single staff member in an isolation room until they are picked up by their parents. Staff members who become symptomatic will be asked to immediately leave the building,
The DOE did not offer details on how sick staffers or students will safely get home or to a doctor.
Positive cases will undergo an investigation by the NYC Test + Trace Corps and DOHMH to determine close contacts within the school. In the event of a lab-confirmed infection, schools will let all families and students know, and all students and teachers that were close contacts will be instructed to self-quarantine for 14 days.
The process will likely pose a critical test to the city's tracing program. A recent New York Times article questioned the efficacy of the program, which has never performed tracing of this scale. Some former and current tracers describing the training as “poorly run and disorganized."
“We are doing everything in our power to keep kids healthy while ensuring they are getting the education they deserve," said Mayor Bill de Blasio in the press release. "These rigorous test and trace protocols will keep our students and staff safe as we start off this new school year."
The DOE said it is buying personal protective equipment for its schools, including masks, disinfectant, hand sanitizer, and electrostatic sprayers. Students and teachers will be required to maintain social distancing and wear facial coverings, while cleaning will occur throughout the day in addition to a nightly disinfecting.
In the outline, school officials also assured families that "school leadership and facilities staff in every school are reviewing school space and making necessary repairs and adjustments to ensure safe conditions for in-person student learning this fall."
But some teachers and custodian engineers unions have questioned how safe and clean some of the facilities can get. And amid the city's budget crisis and uncertainty over federal stimulus funding, some have raised concerns about whether the city has enough money to pull off a safe reopening.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has offered little specific guidance to schools on handling outbreaks. The agency has recommended that "in most instances, a single case of COVID-19 in a school would not warrant closing the entire school. Community spread and how much contact the person with COVID-19 had with others, as well as when such contact took place, need to be considered."
“The safety and health of our school communities is always our first priority – before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic – and we will remain vigilant in monitoring health conditions this fall while driving towards academic excellence for every student," said Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza in a statement.
The city is required to submit its schools reopening plan to the state by Friday, and Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he will decide on approving each district’s plan by August 7th.