What to Know
- Less than two weeks before classes begin in New York City, 22 DOE employees have tested positive for COVID-19; One case involves a teacher at P.S.1 in Sunset Park and Middle School 88 in Park Slope
- In-person learning for all New York City public schools is scheduled to resume Sept. 21; deaths of teachers in three other states since school started is generating a new wave of concerns
- New York's COVID-19 rate of infection has been below 1 percent for 34 straight days, which contributed to Gov. Cuomo's decisions to reopen schools, gyms, museums and even indoor dining in the five boroughs
The number of New York City teachers testing positive for the coronavirus ticked up again Friday. After reporting 16 cases among educators on Thursday, the teachers' union president announced a total of 22 cases had been identified ahead of the district's return to in-person learning in less than two weeks.
Two cases confirmed from teachers at a school in the Bronx prompted department officials to close the building for at least 24 hours, DOE spokesperson Miranda Barbot said in a statement Friday.
Barbot says P.S. 811X - the Academy for Career and Living Skill - was closed because the cases were confirmed "in 7 days within the school not limited to one classroom / group." The DOE had confirmed up to 19 cases before the union reported three more by the end of Friday.
The additional cases come as United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew expresses concern over staff testing. The 22 cases are a small percentage of the 15,000 tested. But Mulgrew says many tests administered back on Sept. 2 are just now coming back.
Mulgrew said that the city is not holding up its end of the bargain when it came to rapid results, and said that custodial staffs also had not yet gotten all the cleaning materials they need. He said those two hurdles must be addressed, or else the Sept. 21 opening for schools could be at risk.
"If the city can't live up to its agreement, we are going to say you can't open," Mulgrew said.
In response, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city's "public hospital system has worked to make testing as fast and convenient for school-based staff across the city and we are seeing turnaround times within 48 hours for over 95% of tests. Testing is one component of our extensive safety protocols — including masks, PPE, ample cleaning supplies, and social distancing — and we'll continue to fire way on all cylinders to ensure a safe reopening for our staff."
Over in Queens, teachers worked outside their school on Friday after one of their staff tested positive for COVID-19. The staff at Intermediate School 230, which lost an educator at the height of the pandemic, said they decided to make the decision to work outside when they hadn't heard from the DOE yesterday.
The Jackson Heights teachers say that without a robust contact tracing program here, they're not exactly excited to be going back to the classroom because they don't feel safe.
"I'm grateful that I have a teacher community here because the only reason that we're here today and that we know what's going on is because teachers are taking upon themselves on their own time to make an effort to get tested," Stephanie Nichols, a teacher at the school, said.
"Trust has been broken going back to March. It remains shattered. What we're learning about these cases does nothing to repair trust and to ensure schools can reopen safely in September for these kids," added City Council Education Chair Mark Treyger.
Asked about the total number of staff in schools who have tested positive for COVID-19 since teachers returned to buildings this week, the mayor didn't have a concrete answer Thursday. He said the full reporting would begin when students report for in-person learning in 11 days -- but he also said he expected that "of course" there would be clusters that emerge when school starts.
"Of course there will be days where you find a case in a classroom and the classroom has to be shut down — even a school shut down. But it's a temporary reality," de Blasio said.
It's the mitigation efforts -- like mask-wearing, testing, contact tracing and other measures -- that the city has layered within its multi-faceted back-to-school plan that will be key to ensuring a single case doesn't explode into hundreds, he said.
The approaching flu season will compound the COVID challenge, the mayor and other officials say. With vaccination levels falling off amid the pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday his team is looking into possibly making the flu shot mandatory for public school students, while reminding the Department of Education that transparency is mandatory.
"The school districts and schools have to report. We did that by executive order, so we will have that information," Cuomo said.
Meanwhile, the UFT says it's working with city health and education officials to make sure those who test positive follow the proper quarantine and contact tracing guidelines.
“Until we have a vaccine in place, the most effective tactics against the spread of the coronavirus have been masks and social distancing, along with testing and contract tracing. All of these are part of the city’s safety plan," the teachers union said in a statement. "The plan anticipates that testing will sometimes show that asymptomatic individuals in schools have contracted the virus. The isolation and quarantine of such individuals, followed by aggressive contact tracing, are also key elements of the safety plan."
The city's Department of Education said there had been an investigation into one of the first confirmed COVID cases among teachers this fall, with the person being isolated and other staff members identified as close contacts being required to quarantine.
"As soon as the case was confirmed, we notified staff, in accordance with our protocol. Staff have had access to and known about priority testing since September 1," said the DOE spokesperson.
So far, the city has only confirmed that two employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, and that they work in Brooklyn at P.S.1 in Sunset Park and Middle School 88 in Park Slope, Department of Education officials said.
"School staff have access to free, expedited testing and we’ve encouraged all staff to get tested before they return to buildings while we continue to navigate the realities of a pandemic," DOE spokesperson Miranda Barbot said in a statement.
In-person learning for all New York City public schools is scheduled to resume Sept. 21 after UFT and Mayor de Blasio agreed to postpone the start of the new year to give teachers more time to plan.
Earlier this week, the city announced that 10 school buildings failed safety inspection because the ventilation doesn't meet COVID safety guidelines. As of Thursday, officials say four of those buildings have gotten the needed repairs.
Ventilation is just part of several moving pieces required to reopen schools while keeping the state's infection rate down. It is currently below 1 percent for the 34th straight day, which contributed to Cuomo's recent decisions to reopen schools, gyms, museums, casinos and even indoor dining in the five boroughs.
When schools begin, de Blasio says buses will be available for about 100,000 students, acknowledging that it's a much lower number than previous school years due to hybrid learning.
Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region
With all of New York state in some phase of reopening, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is shifting his focus to monitoring test results on a daily basis across each region to identify potential hotspots before they emerge. Here's the latest tracking data by region. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here
Masks and social distancing requirements apply on buses for everyone, the mayor said. He added that families started to be notified on their children's bus routes on Wednesday and everyone should be notified by the end of the week.
Addressing concerns from teachers who say they showed up at school this week and there was no 30-day supply of protective equipment provided like school officials pledged, de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Caranza said a handful of schools were missed due to the realities of deliveries and facilities.
"Once the mistake was realized, they're being resupplied today with the PPE, it's very easy with the amount of PPE we have on hand to get a school supplied immediately," the mayor told reporters.
School reopenings across the state have already contributed to clusters of new COVID-19 cases, especially on college campuses -- but it is too early to tell if K-12 reopenings will cause an impact on the state's record-low infection rate.
Tracking Coronavirus in Tri-State
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said the clusters emerging on college campuses will inevitably appear -- to at least some degree -- at the K-12 level. He wants to ensure New Yorkers are empowered with the facts and can assess the effectiveness of any individual school plan on an ongoing and rolling basis.
"If the school reopening plans don't work, you'll see that. You'll see it in the numbers," Cuomo said Thursday. "If there's a problem, we will see the problem and we will respond. That is where we are in life now. That's the nature of the situation we are in. We don't know what's going to happen because we don't know what's going to happen."
Going forward, every New York district will submit COVID reports to the state daily -- and the state will issue COVID "report cards" for every school in the state, Cuomo said Tuesday. The accounting will include positive cases of students and staff and daily testing data, among other metrics. And if any school or college campus reaches 100 COVID cases, it will have to move to all-remote immediately.
Some are planning to move certain cohorts to all-remote for a number of days if a student or staff member tests positive. That happened in New Jersey's Little Silver school district, when a student tested positive, officials confirmed Thursday.
Other school reopenings have not gone smoothly. New Milford High School in Fairfield County had to delay in-person learning after finding out on social media about a positive case. A similar situation occurred in Westchester County, where the superintendent of Pelham schools said students partying in the woods have directly led to a delay as well.
Most major school districts across the U.S. are opting to start all-remote anyway, including many in New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy toured schools gearing up for a hybrid model that will begin later in the school year. Recent upticks in infection rates are already generating new cause for alarm. Teachers in at least three states have died after bouts with the coronavirus since the dawn of the new school year.