The New York City public school system is opening its doors this fall for the first time in two years without major COVID-19 restrictions. The city’s Department of Education has loosened numerous protocols, following recent updates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But COVID-19 didn’t quite disappear this summer, even as temperatures heated up and youths looked forward to life outside of classes and the pandemic’s shadow.
A surge of infections this spring — followed a steady plateau of transmission for weeks — left the coronavirus stewing. Since early April, just fewer than 1,300 minors have been hospitalized — about half of which happened after school ended in late June, according to data from the New York State Department of Health.
Yet deaths for all ages have remained relatively low, despite the persistent infections. Dr. Denis Nash, an epidemiology professor at City University of New York, said some loosening of the previous school protocols was understandable.
“We’re in a much different place now than we were last year,” Nash said. “I do think it's reasonable to back off on some of the different policies that have been in existence in the past.”
As he and other health experts expect another surge this autumn, here’s what families should know about the changes in COVID-19 protocols during the third school year under the pandemic.
When’s the first day of school?
Thursday, September 8th.
Are students required to be vaccinated for COVID-19?
There is no current system-wide requirement for students to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
There is a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students who are playing certain high-contact sports like football, volleyball and basketball — or participating in extracurricular activities that involve singing or “increased exhalation,” like cheerleading, orchestra or dance team.
Other childhood vaccines are required, including measles-mumps-rubella, polio and Hepatitis B. Wastewater surveillance suggests polio might be spreading in New York City, and the health department is recommending vaccination especially for neighborhoods that have fallen behind.
Are school staff still required to be vaccinated for COVID-19 like last year?
The Department of Education (DOE) says all of its employees must show proof of a full vaccination series, though it’s unclear if that will include the booster shots that were made available last fall.
As of August 29th, the United Federation of Teachers states that “booster shots are not mandated and we are not aware of any current intent to do so. We cannot, however, predict what may happen in the future.”
Visitors to school buildings and other non-permanent DOE employees are required to be vaccinated, though only proof of one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine is needed for visitors. School officials did not specify how many doses the non-permanent DOE employees were required to have.
My student has symptoms of COVID-19. What now?
Students (and staff) who display symptoms are asked to stay home and take a COVID-19 test.
All positive cases should be reported to the school for the Department of Education to track and monitor in the Situation Room.
My kid tested positive. How long do they need to isolate at home? How long do they need to wear a mask?
If they test positive, your kid will need to isolate and stay home for five days. They can return to campus on Day 6 if they are not experiencing symptoms or if their symptoms are improving, which mirrors the CDC’s policy on isolation.
They will be required to wear a mask at school until Day 10 after symptom onset or the positive test, whichever is earlier. This rule is a slight departure from CDC policy — albeit one that could help reduce COVID transmission in schools.
After a person has caught the virus and gone through their symptoms for 5 days, the CDC allows them to take two negative rapid tests over consecutive days to remove their mask early. That’s despite COVID-positive people being thought of as contagious three days before and eight days after symptom onset, based on a review of global studies.
The DOE is also not asking for asymptomatic students or staff to submit a negative COVID-19 test before returning on Day 6.
Nash from CUNY asked why schools aren’t requiring a negative COVID-19 test result for recovering asymptomatic students and staff to return to school on Day 6 since people can be infectious beyond the initial five days.
“I can really not see any good reason why there would not be a negative test required to come out of isolation and back into the classroom before day 10,” Nash said. “I'm pretty certain that it's going to result in a lot more cases than would otherwise happen.”
My kid was exposed at school to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Do they need to quarantine? What if my kid was exposed to COVID-19 outside of school?
Not necessarily. Your school should send home tests for your child to take on Day 4 and then 24 hours later on Day 5 after their first known exposure.
But these resources don’t exactly align with CDC policy on testing. The federal health agency does recommend taking a COVID test at least 5 full days after an exposure — but adds a caveat related to home antigen tests, akin to the ones being provided by the education department.
The CDC says negative results with these over-the-counter tests “do not rule out SARS-CoV-2 infection and should not be used as the sole basis for treatment or patient management decisions, including infection control decisions.” That’s because at-home tests are less sensitive than PCR tests during the period before symptoms arise, and health experts say the two aren’t interchangeable.
Students can still attend school after an exposure, though the DOE advises students and staff to stay home should symptoms appear. You should monitor your child for fever and other COVID-19 symptoms for 10 days after first exposure.
Whether your child was exposed to someone with COVID-19 in school or elsewhere, the DOE recommends but doesn’t require that your child wear a mask to school for 10 days after the last day of exposure. They ask that these kids get tested on Day 4 and 24 hours later on Day 5 with home tests.
What is the masking policy this year?
Masks are “strongly recommended” indoors, but there is no general mask mandate for any grade level, as Mayor Eric Adams dropped the last school-based requirement in June.
Masks, however, are required when asymptomatic students and staff return to school on Day 6 after testing positive through Day 10, or if a person is showing symptoms of COVID-19.
The DOE is also mandating masks when students and staff are entering school medical rooms, nurses’ offices or campus health centers. Students and staff are “strongly recommended” to wear masks if they are immunocompromised as recommended by their doctors, or in “crowded indoor settings.”
It is not clear how these mask regulations will be enforced.
Masks are strongly recommended but not required after a potential exposure, whether inside or outside of school.
An epidemiologist who spoke to Gothamist questioned some of the new policies, including the lifting of mask mandates.
There isn't a single intervention that alone can prevent an outbreak or prevent the spread of the virus
Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a public health policy expert at CUNY, noted the DOE was lifting many of the previous mitigation measures all at the same time — on top of no mask mandate and no quarantining in the event of an exposure. It’s also unclear if boosters will be required once the shots are updated to fight newer variants.
“We have to keep in mind that there isn't a single intervention that alone can prevent an outbreak or prevent the spread of the virus,” Lee said.
“You want to always check to see if you have at least three layers of protection. You know, we're still in the middle of a pandemic, we're still in the middle of the health emergency,” Lee added. “So you want to try to maintain three levels of protection at all times.”
Nash, the epidemiology professor, said the school system should be flexible on reinstating a mask mandate during COVID-19 surges.
Will students fill out a daily health screener form this year?
No - the DOE has dropped the screeners.
What about the random in-school COVID-19 surveillance testing?
The DOE is not conducting in-school testing for COVID-19 this year.
Will my kid’s classroom be adequately ventilated?
The DOE said there are more than 160,000 air purifiers across the school system with at least two in every classroom. There have been questions about the efficacy of the brand of air purifiers the city purchased for schools, including multiple in-depth reports by Gothamist. Many school buildings have also upgraded their HVAC systems with 110,000 MERV-13 filters installed.
How will we learn about cases in schools? What’s the threshold for closing a class?
The DOE said “school closures will be limited” under the new protocols and will only occur if there is “widespread transmission in the school.” Akin to last year, the DOE did not specify the threshold for “widespread transmission” to close a classroom or school.
What’s lunchtime going to look like this year?
“Meals will resume regular meal service,” the DOE says.
Schools that used outdoor space for classes and lunches will be able to continue this year, the DOE said, with school yards, street space and parks put to use by teachers and students. Last year 840 of the system’s 1,800 or so schools used outdoor space for schooling.
Will we still get home tests from my school?
The DOE will issue four tests a month to every student and staffer to take home, and can be used as needed such as when experiencing symptoms, exposures, undertaking travel or large gatherings.
My child has a serious medical condition. Can they do remote schooling?
The DOE has maintained an expanded list of medical conditions that would allow students to apply for what’s called Home Instruction, which could include individual in-person instruction or remote individual and group courses.
Before the pandemic, the program typically enrolled about 1,300 students who were usually recovering from surgery or other procedures. Students with conditions not listed can still apply for Home Instruction.
These conditions include:
Chronic Renal Diseases
Congenital Lung Disease
Congenital Heart Condition
What’s happening with the budget?
Now that’s complicated. After Mayor Eric Adam announced $375 million in cuts to schools with lower enrollment, a group of parents and teachers have sued the city to stop the loss of funding and the case has gone back and forth in court. Meanwhile, City Council members who helped pass the budget in the first place say they were misled about the severity and impacts of the cuts. A hearing on the case is scheduled for August 29th, just days before school starts.