What to Know
- Gov. Andrew Cuomo sounded the alarm for K-12 schools expected to reopen in person in less than two weeks, saying "you will see the numbers go up and then you will see more disruption" if the timing isn't appropriate
- Mayor de Blasio has said he will reclose schools if the city's infection rate ticks above 3 percent; Cuomo said 3 percent is too high "in a dense environment," while others argue the rate should apply at community-level
- Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy says indoor dining can return statewide as of Friday, Sept. 4 at 25% capacity; social distancing is required.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has raised a warning flag for schools that are expected to reopen in person in some capacity in less than two weeks, forewarning that clusters of COVID-19 cases that have been popping in colleges will inevitably happen to some degree when K-12 starts the new year.
And the more dense an environment -- like New York City -- the riskier the proposition.
"What we're seeing in colleges I think is going to be replicated in K-12. I think you will see school districts reopen. I think they will have plans," Cuomo told reporters on a conference call Monday, where he discussed an outbreak at SUNY Oneonta. "If they are not followed, you will see students get infected, you will see the transmission rate go up, you will see schools close. Some of that is inevitable.
"The question becomes how well did that administration actually enforce compliance and what was their parameter before a school takes quarantien measures, goes to remote learning, etc.?" Cuomo continued. "School districts would be well advised to look at colleges. The basic dynamic is the same."
Cuomo says it's still unclear whether the uptick at Oneonta is due to socializing at colleges or lack of compliance in the community.
The school in upstate New York was forced to shut down in-person instruction for the next two weeks after 105 people tested positive for coronavirus infections. Under Cuomo's recently tweaked standards for colleges, a school must go all-remote for two weeks if it hits 100 cases or sees 5 percent of its on site student and staff test positive. It may also go remote if it says it can't contain an outbreak.
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
Cuomo praised the quick shutdown effort by the chancellor and said the same caution should apply to K-12 schools. He also said that the state can come in and "override the locality" if they believe that the schools should close back down, or in the case of NYC, remain closed.
"My advice on the K-12 is err on the side of caution. If you go to in-person education and you are not prepared or you can't actually implement the plan and do it on day one, you will see the numbers go up and then you will see more disruption," Cuomo added. "If you're not ready, better you start when you are ready."
He also seemed to suggest that New York City's baseline positivity rate for re-closing its public schools -- 3 percent -- was too high.
"A 3 percent infection rate, you know, that's a high infection rate in a congregate situation. Three percent is high in a dense environment, like a dense urban environment where you have people taking public transportation; it's a crowded environment," Cuomo said. "Three percent is high."
Mayor Bill de Blasio's 3 percent threshold to re-close New York City schools is stricter than Cuomo's is for the rest of the state (9 percent, once K-12 schools open -- or 5 percent for instituions of higher learning). The city has maintained an infection rate around 1 percent or lower for more than a month, but once people start returning more to some semblance of an out-of-home routine, that may change. The teachers' unions and other critics of the mayor's reopening plan for city schools have questioned at every turn whether that threshold is sufficient.
Tracking Coronavirus in Tri-State
They also have demanded stricter testing protocol, like mandatory testing for every adult and child who enter a school building. De Blasio said the union had never asked for mandatory testing until extremely late in the planning process. He also said he didn't think rapid testing was scaleable, but given that testing is universally available in the city, he has urged everyone to take advantage.
Asked about mandatory testing yet again Monday, the mayor pointed to successful school reopenings in other countries and says that hasn't been the standard. De Blasio said the city is looking at other means to "get where we need to go." He said it'll require a variety of measures beyond testing to ensure safety.
"Mandatory testing is a big deal. You can't just test those who say I’m willing to be tested. That's going to lead to a problem," said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who said that not having testing would be a dealbreaker for them. "It's not like the mayor's is going to convince me not to have a mandated testing program."
De Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have repeatedly said they would not reopen a school building in person, or even a single classroom, if it were not safe. As of Monday, the mayor said 1,321 school buildings had been inspected -- about 88 percent of those that needed it. The rest of the inspections should be completed within the next two days, he said, and the status of each school inspection-wise will be published online on a rolling basis.
The city also said nearly 250 outdoor learning applications had already been approved for students to have at least some classes outside. There have also been 324,000 iPads distributed so students can conduct the remote portion of the hybrid learning.
Even with the push for classroom inspections and other achievements, the city says the number of public school families who have opted for all-remote learning is significantly higher than the mayor initially stated three weeks ago. The city's Department of Education said that more than a third (37 percent) of families with children in public schools are not having their kids enroll in the default hybrid model, with 366,553 requests made for all-remote learning. That is a sharp uptick from when Mayor de Blasio said only about a quarter of parents were choosing that option earlier in August. District 26 in Bayside, Queens, reported than more than half (51 percent) have requested remote learning; there are seven other districts where more than 40 percent of families have done the same.
Earlier this month, the city's largest teachers' union threatened to strike -- and that could still on the table if its agreements with de Blasio on how to safely welcome educators and kids back to in-person learning disintegrate further. Before any strike vote can take place, a vote to authorize a strike must happen.
At a meeting on Monday, the union representing teachers in the nation's largest school district said that negotiations with the city are ongoing. If no deal is reached by Tuesday afternoon, then a strike vote will be held. A meeting is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Tuesday to decide if a plan put forward by the city would be approved, or if a strike would be authorized by the union's delegate assembly.
"We can't afford to send students and staff back into any buildings until we have done everything possible — including a rigorous virus testing program — to see that they are safe," said Mulgrew. "The members of the UFT know that public employee strikes are illegal, but we are determined to do what is necessary to protect our students and the families of New York City."
The last teachers strike in the city came back in 1975, amid a financial crisis for New York City. As late as Monday afternoon, de Blasio said that a strike was "not on the agenda for this week ," although union statements seem contrary to that belief. During an interview on NY1 later Monday night, the mayor tried to flip the script and say it's dangerous for the students to not return.
"The American Society of Pediatrics has said that the kids are going to suffer if they don't get a chance to come back to school. They're going to suffer in many ways. We have to factor in everything," de Blasio said. "We have to think about kids whose education has already been disrupted. But not only that, their mental health, their physical health, nutrition, all the things they get in school."
The union's at-time fractious relationship with City Hall has been made that much more tense by looming layoffs -- 22,000 city workers, many of them teachers -- made necessary by the COVID budget crisis and lack of direct federal aid. Layoff notices were scheduled to begin going out Monday, but de Blasio said they would be delayed on a day-to-day basis after unions asked for time to convince the state to reconvene legislators to approve long-term borrowing power.
That would provide the sustenance to avert the layoffs immediately, de Blasio said, and assure critical city workers would remain on hand to continue fighting the ongoing war against coronavirus.
Despite small clusters of COVID cases popping up at college campuses as they have across the nation, and spot spikes in certain regions (most recently in Western New York), New York state's infection rate has remained well under control. It's in the midst of a 24-day streak with daily COVID test positivity rates below 1 percent and reported its lowest total hospitalizations on Monday.
The low infection rates have allowed the phased reopening to continue. Gyms were allowed to reopen last week. Cuomo said he plans to make an announcement on casinos some time this week. Indoor dining in New York City, along with malls, would then be the two major business sectors left to reopen.
It's Cuomo's call, though de Blasio has been asked questions about the return of indoor dining during virtually every briefing he's held this month. On Monday, the mayor said he would have more to discuss on indoor dining in the coming days.
The governor still has no timeline for those in the five boroughs, but noted last week that restaurant compliance had been improving in New York City, which may indicate a return to indoor dining sooner rather than later. Still, that may come at least after the start of school as Cuomo -- and hundreds of thousands of parents and educators across New York City -- wait anxiously to see how that plays out.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, meanwhile, has set a date for the return of indoor dining in his state. He announced early Monday dine-in could resume statewide as of Friday, Sept. 4 at 25 percent capacity. Social distancing is required.