By Amy Zimmer and Christina Veiga, Chalkbeat New York
New York City’s middle school students will return to their campuses on Feb. 25, education department officials told principals on Monday.
Middle school teachers will return the day before to ready their classrooms, and they will be prioritized to receive coronavirus vaccinations during the mid-winter recess, from Feb. 12 – 21, according to education department officials.
“Those families who choose to have kids in school, our kids really benefit emotionally, intellectually, and even in terms of their physical health,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday at a press conference. “A lot of kids have not done well with the isolation and need a chance to be back in a school community. We’re convinced we can do it safely.”
Roughly 62,000 middle school students are expected to return to in-person classes, according to education department data based on the number of children attending before their buildings shut down. The mayor did not say when high school students might return to campuses. Still, the majority of the city’s roughly 960,000 public school students will continue to learn remotely full time, as roughly 70% of children opted to learn from home.
Middle and high school students have been learning online exclusively for about three months, after de Blasio shut down all school buildings on Nov. 19, when the city surpassed a 3% weekly coronavirus positivity rate. Two weeks later, he reopened buildings for elementary school students and those in District 75, which serve children of all ages with the most complex disabilities, prioritizing those likeliest to struggle with remote learning.
De Blasio had said previously he would announce a plan this month for reopening middle schools, but some of the limiting factors included school-based COVID-19 testing capacity as well as vaccine access.
To that end, the education department will increase staffing in the “Situation Room,” which is charged with helping principals respond to coronavirus detected among students and staff. Dr. Ted Long, who oversees the city’s test and trace corps, said an additional 35 contact contact tracers will be in place by the time middle school buildings reopen along with more testing teams.
“We’ve been building up capacity, and we will get the number of teams needed to be in each school in order to do the weekly testing,” Long said. “We’re very confident we can do it.”
After the mayor reopened elementary school and District 75 schools in December, he removed a systemwide shutdown trigger, but assured improved safety precautions at reopened schools by increasing random coronavirus testing of students and staff from monthly to weekly. As testing has expanded and cases have gone up in schools — just as they have citywide — the increase in testing has taxed the Situation Room. Many educators and families have a litany of concerns about how it’s handling positive cases, including long waits for test results, failure to let “close contacts” know that they may have been exposed, conflicting guidance for principals, and confusing letters to families.
More than a month ago, the mayor had pledged he would staff up the Situation Room after winter break. Education department officials did not immediately say how many people in total are currently staffing the situation room, but spokesperson Miranda Barbot said the city was prepared to fill up to 580 full- and part-time positions.
“We will hire as many staff as are needed,” she said.
Contact tracing is seen as a critical component of school safety plans (along with measures like social distancing, mask wearing and good ventilation). A number of studies have found that, while rare, spread within schools can happen. These studies generally rely on the accuracy of contact tracing.
When previously discussing bringing middle school students back, the mayor had also expressed concern about the coronavirus variant from Britain, which is more highly transmissible, alarming many public health officials.
Dr. Jay Varma, the mayor’s senior health advisor, said the variants mean the city has to stay vigilant. But he said that New York City has put in place more rigorous mitigation measures than many European countries, where the new strains forced a wave of school shutdowns. He pointed to the city’s universal masking requirements, social distancing, focus on ventilation, COVID-19 testing in schools, and rising vaccination rates.
“When you combine all those things together, there really isn’t a comparison to what’s going on in other places,” Varma said.
One positive coronavirus case forces a classroom to quarantine for 10 days, and two cases at a school trigger a 24-hour buildings closure. If those cases are found to be “unlinked,” the building will remain closed for 10 days (down from 14 earlier in the school year).
Many school communities have been frustrated by the lack of consistency because of the closures, with more than 700 buildings closing down for at least 10 days in the month since winter break, according to public data. Roughly 53% of the 1,052 school buildings that reopened in December have experienced closures of two to 10 days, according to education department officials.
While some families see the frequent closures as a reason to close all schools until coronavirus rates go down in the community, others see it as a reason to change the threshold for building shutdowns.The mayor said he is now “reevaluating” the two-case threshold.
Though de Blasio set no date for the return of high schools students, he re-emphasized on Monday his goal to offer them in-person instruction this school year. Some high school campuses are being used as vaccination sites.
Teachers started getting vaccinated about a month ago. Even with a priority for middle school teachers, those getting their first doses won’t be fully vaccinated by the time classrooms reopen. It takes about 10 to 14 days after the second dose to acquire immunity, Varma said. The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has said that teachers do not have to be vaccinated to reopen safely.
Many families have been urging the mayor to reopen buildings for middle and high school students, concerned about the isolation and mental health stress children are experiencing as well as the challenges that come with online learning.
But it’s unclear how many of these students will return. The education department had said, for instance, that roughly 290,000 elementary school and District 75 students were eligible to go back when their buildings reopened. But the department has yet to release figures on how many children ultimately returned.
Officials are asking middle schools to offer five days a week to as many students as possible instead of the blended model that mixes in-person and remote learning. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said about half of the city’s 471 middle schools will reopen full-time for students who have opted in.
Others will serve a subset of students full-time, according to the education department, with an emphasis on bringing back those most at risk of falling behind — including those who have disabilities, are learning English as a new language, or lack stable housing.
“The other middle schools will program and reprogram to get to the goal of having five days a week,” Carranza said. “In the rare occasions where perhaps space is just not available, we will continue to prioritize vulnerable groups of students.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.