Schools

NYC Debuts Sweeping Changes to COVID School Closure Policy as Rise of Variants Stokes Anxiety

Despite the accelerated vaccination rollout, officials urge continued caution; NY and NJ are among five states that account for 44% of all new U.S. COVID infections over the latest seven-day period, Johns Hopkins data shows

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What to Know

  • NYC announced a new threshold for 10-day school building closures: It requires four or more cases in multiple classrooms and the exposure must be traced to in-school transmission, officials said
  • Despite an accelerated vaccination rollout, officials urge caution; NY and NJ are among five states that account for 44% of all new U.S. COVID infections over the latest study period, Johns Hopkins says
  • The more contagious U.K. variant is now the predominant strain in the U.S., the CDC said Wednesday; it has been found in more than 16,270 cases across all 52 U.S. jurisdictions and is in all NJ counties

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced sweeping changes to the coronavirus-related closure policy for the nation's largest public school system Thursday, adjustments he says will provide families more consistent scheduling and fewer disruptions while still prioritizing safety for all students and staff.

Starting Monday, schools will only be required to switch fully remote for 10 days if it has four or more cases in multiple classrooms and the exposure is traced to the school. After those 10 days and no new outbreaks, students can return to class.

Some educational buildings house multiple schools; the new policy applies only to the individual schools in those case situations, not the entire building. If cases are reported, an investigation takes place but the whole building needn't close for 24 hours as previously was required while that investigation is ongoing.

Previously, two confirmed cases in a school prompted a full remote switch for the building. Under the new policy, two or three positive cases within a seven-day period merit increased testing rather than forced closure. Random testing is already mandatory in schools citywide but if two or three positive cases are confirmed, weekly testing would be doubled to 40 percent of students and staff.

The strict individual classroom closure rule remains -- one confirmed case means going remote. After 10 days and no new cases, students can return to class.

"This will help us to have more consistency in school attendance and schedules, keep strict health and safety standards, our situation room is always monitoring closely," de Blasio said Thursday. "We set a gold standard from the beginning. We said we would take the best healthcare practices from around the world, apply all of them in New York City public schools. It has worked. They are the safest places to be, literally. And we want to keep getting kids back."

Mandatory masking and other core coronavirus protocol will continue. New York City's coronavirus school policies remain stricter than CDC guidance, officials say.

COVID-19 at New York City Public Schools

This map shows all known cases of COVID-19 at New York City public schools. It is updated Sunday through Friday at 5:30 PM.

     Building that has been closed
     One or more classrooms has been closed
     A member of the school community has tested positive but the school community was not exposed

Source: nyc.gov

The city recently extended its opt-in to in-person learning option for families until Friday. That deadline holds, although the city has yet to say how many students can actually fit in the classrooms across the city, and hasn't said whether they will adopt the latest CDC guidance that students only need to be three feet apart. The mayor said Thursday that families won't have another chance to switch to in-person learning until June, at the earliest.

Schools have been a bright spot for the city and across the country as far as on-grounds coronavirus transmission. Weekly mandatory testing of students and staff has consistently yielded a positivity rate well below 1 percent and well below the positivity rates in surrounding communities. As of Thursday, 25 New York City school buildings are in a 24-hour closure state due to COVID cases, while zero are in the midst of an extended closure associated with a health department probe.

Earlier this week, de Blasio suggested more recent scientific data warranted the change for the two-case rule, citing a scholarly journal report by his senior adviser, Dr. Jay Varma, that found about 80 percent of school infections stem from adults.


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New York City and New Jersey Vaccine Providers

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Data: City of New York, State of New Jersey • Nina Lin / NBC

New Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter echoed the mayor's sentiments Thursday, describing the change as a "science-driven" adjustment.

But the ongoing threat of COVID is still very real. New York City's new daily case totals are still quadruple the level they were in early November, while hospitalizations are about double what they were at that point. Notably, though, the in-school transmission rate has stayed under 1 percent throughout.

"As long as COVID is still in our city, we must remain disciplined about keeping the virus from spreading. But the good news is that when it comes to schools we have proven to be able to do just that," NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi said. "When our multiple layers of public health precautions are followed, the virus does not spread easily in schools. Our goal will always be to keep schools open as much as possible by keeping them safe."

President Joe Biden praised his administration’s efforts to expand coronavirus vaccine supply and eligibility during a speech on Tuesday, announcing that all American adults will be eligible for the vaccine beginning April 19. The president also implored Americans to remain vigilant as caseloads remain high, saying, “The virus is spreading because there are too many people who see the end in sight and think we’re at the finish line already. Let me be deadly earnest with you: we aren’t at the finish line.”

With new daily COVID-19 cases plateauing at what experts describe to be a too-high level and more contagious variants accounting for most new cases, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew had said any rule changes "have to take the safety of children and their families into account."

It was an agreement with Mulgrew's union that forced a citywide public school closure in mid-November, when the city hit a then highly controversial 3 percent rolling positivity rate threshold. That seven-day rolling rate hasn't fallen below 3 percent since. But the in-school transmission rate has stayed exceedingly low.

In a statement Thursday, Mulgrew appeared to support the city's new plan, saying, "with our increased knowledge about the spread of the virus, and as more teachers and other school staff have been vaccinated, our medical experts are convinced that the rule can be changed and still maintain safety."

"Our rigorous COVID precautions have meant that schools have been the safest public spaces in New York City -- with an infection rate of less than one percent, even when community infection rates are much higher," Mulgrew said.

The union president had less confidence in de Blasio's longstanding contention that public schools citywide would fully reopen, with five-day-a-week in-person instruction for all students, in September, given the number of remote kids.

"While this is a step forward, the most important fact in the public school opening debate is that the overwhelming majority -- some seven hundred thousand public school families – continue to opt for remote instruction," Mulgrew said. "If we are going to have anything like a normal opening in September, the mayor needs to find ways to assure them that our COVID precautions remain strong and that schools are safe for their children."

Gov. Phil Murphy said he plans to have all schools back fully open come the fall, and said the new CDC guidance regarding social distancing can be a game changer in making that happen. NBC New York's Brian Thompson reports.

For months, de Blasio and top city health officials have sought to assure parents and school staff that is the case. The accelerated vaccination rollout has inspired confidence as well. The mayor says New York City vaccinations could top 6 million by the time kids return in the fall. His goal for June is 5 million.

To date, more than 2.7 million New York City residents have had at least one vaccine dose (32.3 percent of the population), while about 1.7 million (20 percent of the population) is fully inoculated. Statewide, 22.3 percent of the population reports a completed series, while more than 7 million people -- 35.1 percent of the population -- have had at least one vaccine dose.

The national vaccination rollout has taken on heightened urgency in the last two months as more contagious variants fuel heightened case spread, even as hospitalizations among the most vulnerable Americans, many of whom were in the first two eligibility groups for vaccination, continue to fall.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said that scrapping the 2-case rule in the city's public schools is already sparking another fight with the teachers union. It's not clear just how relaxed the mayor intends on making the new rule. NBC New York's Chris Glorioso reports.

Concerns over one particular strain increased again on Wednesday as the CDC announced the highly contagious strain first identified in the U.K. last year, known as B.1.1.7, is now the predominant strain circulating in the United States.

As of the latest data, the U.K. variant has been found in more than 16,270 cases in all 52 U.S. jurisdictions. The U.K. variant accounts for 26 percent of COVID-19 cases across the nation as of last week, CDC Director Dr. Rachelle Walensky said.

Other variants, including the South African and Brazilian strains, have stoked some national anxiety as well. Viral mutations are a matter of course and more have emerged in just the last few months. On Thursday, Stanford University researchers said they have identified five new cases of a "double mutant" COVID-19 strain recently discovered in the San Francisco area. Doctors suspect it could be more contagious and possibly more resistant to existing vaccines, CNBC says.

While much remains unknown about newer variants, Walensky says more testing is needed to better understand the potential threats or non-threats they present.

New Jersey agrees. On Wednesday, state health officials said they had identified nearly 900 potential variants of interest across the state. The U.K. variant accounts for the lion's share of those cases (806) and has now been detected in every single New Jersey county, officials said. The state is tracking seven known variants; so far it has detected few cases of the so-called "mutant" California one.

Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said the state has only been conducting genomic sequencing of about 2 percent of positive COVID samples in the state, which lends credence to the long-stated assumption that variant representation in the state is underreported. Starting next week, she hopes to get that sampling number up to about 5 percent.

New York City has stepped up its reporting of variants as well in recent months. As of its latest report, the U.K. variant had been found in at least 590 people, a 35 percent increase from its prior data release. Genomic sequencing of a subset of virus specimens taken from city residents during the week starting March 15 found an estimated 26.2 percent of all tested were the B.1.1.7 variant.

Far more prevalent is the B.1.526 variant, the strain thought to have originated in Washington Heights last year before spreading to other boroughs and states, including New Jersey, which has identified at least 131 cases of that.

Pfizer and Biontech announced Thursday that their vaccine has proven effective against the coronavirus for at least six months after the second dose, including the South African variant.

A combination of the two strains are thought to account for nearly three-quarters of all new recent cases in New York City, officials have said. City health officials have stressed that not all variants are reasons for public health concern. The B.1.526 variant does appear similar in heightened infectiousness to the U.K. strain, Varma has said, but a preliminary analysis does not show it causes more severe illness or risk of death or that it reduces the effectiveness of vaccines.

As recently as this week, Chokshi acknowledged new variants were fueling viral spread across the five boroughs, but he reiterated there's no evidence of worsening outcomes among the infected. Like earlier strains, they also don't appear to pose a heightened risk in schools. It might be the opposite, in fact.

Asked about the variants and schools Thursday, Varma reiterated that the city is concerned about the evolution of coronavirus and the emergence of new variants, but the five boroughs have proven in each surge that they can keep schools safe.

It's more of a risk not to have them in class, he added.

"We've documented the harm that can occur from disrupting the social, emotional, and educational development of children. And we're balancing that with the data that we've learned from over 700,000 tests, hundreds of case investigations, and really the close partnership with our colleagues in the union and with families," Varma said Thursday. "I do feel confident that we can continue to apply very rigorous safety standards that will keep our schools safe, even though the virus is, you know, fighting back by evolving and changing.

"We are grounded in data and science," he continued. "If new things emerge, new information emerges, we're always going to adjust our protocols to match and maximize health and safety."

Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region

Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here

Source: ny.gov

Continued caution is urged across the board. New York and New Jersey are among five states that account for 44 percent of all new U.S. COVID infections over the latest seven-day period available for study, Johns Hopkins data shows.

That's why both Gov. Phil Murphy and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, along with de Blasio, urge continued caution by their residents even amid the welcome accelerations to the national vaccination rollout. Murphy's health team recently shared moderate- and high-case scenarios for the state's COVID outlook the next few months. Those scenarios depend on certain assumptions, including vaccination rates and public behavior -- as well as the potential risk from lowering the collective guard.

In the worst-case scenario, the Garden State could set new single-day pandemic records for daily case totals into mid-May, though hospitalization and death rates would stay lower than their previous peaks. In a new best-case scenario shared for the first time Wednesday, core COVID metrics would hover around 4,350 new daily cases and 2,129 total hospitalizations through April 18. That best-case scenario is more similar to the moderate case than the latter is to the high one.

murphy scenarios
Handout
New Jersey has outlined a series of scenarios for its COVID outlook the next few months.

Murphy believes New Jersey's prognosis will fall somewhere between the first two, but was noncommital as far as major reopening steps the state might take over the next months. He warned the impact of public behavior couldn't be overestimated as the state's vaccine program tries to reach those most hesitant.

"It's why we are continuing to enforce our statewide mask mandate especially for indoor activities, where we know that transmission is more likely and also in the face of more transmissible variants that we know are among us," Murphy said. "It's also a reason why we moved up our vaccine eligibility timeframe aggressively, so we can now add more people to the ranks of fully vaccinated in a shorter time."

As of Thursday, New Jersey had fully inoculated about 22.2 percent of its population, while 36 percent has had at least one dose.

Heavy concentration of new virus cases in states that account for 22 percent of the U.S. population has prompted some experts and elected officials to call for Biden’s administration to ship additional vaccine doses there. So far, the White House has shown no signs of shifting from its population-based policy.

President Joe Biden has set an April 19 deadline for all states to make vaccinations universally available to adults. New York took that step Tuesday, while Connecticut did so last week. New Jersey makes the move on April 19.

Nationally, more than 42 percent of U.S. adults age 18 and older have received at least one dose, while a quarter of the country's adult population is now fully inoculated, according to the CDC. There is some concern that the recent shortage of Johnson & Johnson dosages due to a mishap at a Baltimore production facility could become a hiccup for getting vaccines out to those who need one. Persichilli said that New Jersey's allotment of J&J vaccines goes from 131,000 doses this week to 15,6000 next week, and then could drop to 5,200. The governor said what's giving him peace of mind is that it appears to be a "short-term issue with them."

New real time information is allowing scientists at Hackensack Medical Center to develop a new rapid test that detects COVID-19 variants. NBC New York's Brian Thompson reports.

It's still unclear how long protection lasts for those who are vaccinated, the CDC says, though new research suggests Moderna's vaccine protection lasts at least six months. It takes about two weeks after the final shot to build immunity.

According to NBC News' latest count, there have been more than 31 million COVID-19 cases in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic, with the country seeing another million cases added in just the last two weeks. More than 562,000 deaths have been reported in the U.S. as well, 64 percent more fatalities than the next closest country, Brazil. Brooklyn is the second deadliest-COVID county in America behind Los Angeles County, while Queens and the Bronx rank fifth and sixth respectively, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins.

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