Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Sunday that New York City public-school students will be able to return to in-person instruction as part of a phased reopening starting December 7, and that the city was overhauling how it would manage the schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The city’s youngest schoolchildren will go first, with students in 3-K, pre-K, and grades K-5 able to return on Monday, December 7, followed by special education students in District 75 on Thursday, December 10. It is not yet clear when the city’s middle and high schools will be able to reopen, as the city is still developing a plan for that, de Blasio said.
The announcement signals an abrupt change in policy, with de Blasio explaining that the city was abandoning the widely criticized 3 percent test positivity threshold which led to the controversial re-closing of New York City public schools on November 18. The city will also increase the frequency of random testing at schools, with about 20 percent of students at any given school being tested weekly rather than monthly. United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew has released a statement indicating that the teachers union supports the phased reopening plan.
The city is also moving to eliminate the embattled hybrid-learning model it began trying to use when schools reopened this fall, as parents will now be given the option to send their kids to school five days a week, instead of the previous one to three days a week, so long as those schools have enough space to do so. However, only students who have already signed up for the blended in-person learning program — which is only about 330,000 schoolchildren, including roughly 190,000 students in lower grades and special education schools — will be able to return under the plan. Parents will also need to sign testing consent forms for their children to be eligible.
It’s not yet clear how or when parents who originally opted for remote-only learning will be able to re-enroll the children for in-person learning, should they wish to do that. (De Blasio suggested it might not be possible until vaccines are available.)
No specific metric will be used as a citywide benchmark for determining whether or not schools close again, with those decisions instead being made on a case-by-case basis focused on class or school-level COVID-19 outbreaks. With regards to schools closed under the state’s orange-zone threshold, the city aims to bring those students back as well, per Gothamist:
De Blasio also said the DOE will work with the state to reopen as many schools as possible in the city’s orange zones, which currently include parts of Staten Island and Queens. Schools are required to close when their location becomes part of the state’s COVID-19 orange zone, but are able to “test out” of the closure with regular coronavirus tests of the staff and student body, including virus testing prior to returning to school grounds …
The city will continue to rely on the education department’s “situation room” to assess potential classroom or school closures when positive cases arise.
Explained de Blasio on Sunday: “If they find something that requires temporary closure, there’s always an investigation to determine the larger ramifications, and then acting accordingly on what the situation room and our test-and-trace team finds.” Thus far this year, test positivity rates for kids in New York City schools have been far lower than officials expected, which is one of the reasons the arbitrary closure of the city’s schools ten days ago was so baffling.
Many parents, politicians, and public-health officials opposed the closure, and fortunately the city is now changing course. New York’s prioritization of younger students and those with disabilities now mirrors what many other school systems around the country have already implemented amid the pandemic.