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The preliminary success of reopening New York City Schools and what it means for other school districts

CNN logo CNN 10/22/2020 By Annie Grayer, CNN
a baby sitting on a table: NYCSchoolsReopen © CNN NYCSchoolsReopen

The New York City public school system, the largest school district in the country, has so far been able to reopen for in-person instruction without a massive outbreak of coronavirus cases.

Aside from New York City, the remaining nine of the nation's top 10 school districts started their school years online. New York's preliminary success could potentially serve as a resource for other districts embarking on a return to in-person learning.

The city launched a new testing program on October 9, where 10 percent to 20 percent of student and staff populations at each school will randomly be tested once a month. The first week of testing yielded "remarkable" results, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday.

Out of 16,348 random Covid-19 tests, the city reported only 28 cases, which amounts to a 0.17 percent positivity rate, the mayor said.

Of those infected as of October 16, 20 are staff and eight are students in 377 schools. The city reports that 99 percent of tests are returned in 48 hours; 72,000 parents have consented to have their students participate in the random testing program.

"This is really extraordinary," de Blasio said.

"The proof is in the results, and these are amazing results," he said, adding this really "bodes well for the future of our schools and our ability to fight and overcome this disease."

The new testing regiment builds on the required weekly testing for schools in areas considered to be in the yellow zone. A school in the yellow zone is one that is a buffer zone to a nearby cluster of cases, which are schools in the red zone that have had to close down.

The overall number of positive cases for the city is higher than the results from the random testing program. As of September 1, 2,004 students ages 5 to 17 and 395 staff have tested positive for Covid-19.

Since in-person learning began on September 21, 124 of the city's 1,600 public schools have had to close down at least partially for a minimum of 14 days, according to a representative at the New York City Department of Education. For a school to close, there needs to be at least two cases at a school from different classrooms. If there is one or two cases in the school but it is from the same classroom, just that classroom closes down.

Teachers union credits rigorous testing

New York City opened up for in-person learning through a phased-in approach starting on September 21. The number of students who opted into the hybrid model went from 91,000 students on the first day of school to approximately 460,000 to date, according to NYC DOE.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew is encouraged by what he has seen so far. He credits the initial success to the union's push to implement a rigorous testing program, but says there still should be more testing. Instead of testing up to 20 percent of individuals once a month, Mulgrew hopes the program gets to testing 7 percent three days a month.

Mulgrew advised unions in other large cities afraid of opening up to listen to medical experts and follow their guidance closely.

"It's not political," Mulgrew explained. "Independent medical decisions have to be made and those are the ones you should follow."

Deputy Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Anita Cicero cautioned extrapolating too much from the city's initial success.

Cicero said "it's much too soon to declare their experiment a victory yet."

"Much more testing would need to be done to learn with more accuracy how many COVID cases are actually in the NYC school system," Cicero said in a statement to CNN.

Cicero acknowledged that New York City "deserves a lot of credit for designing and implementing a reopening plan that follows CDC guidance and prioritizes the measures we know are effective in reducing risk of transmission," such as mandatory masking, enforcing 6 feet distance between individuals, reducing class size, organizing students into cohorts, and reinforcing the importance of disinfecting and cleaning.

'That early data is encouraging'

Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown University, helped create a Covid-19 school response dashboard that has led her to believe that the opening of schools does not seem to immediately increase the rate of infection. Analyzing national data from 1,266 schools with more than 212,642 students and 64,222 staff, so far, the data shows just 0.14% of students surveyed have tested positive for Covid-19 and that rises to only 0.36% for teachers.

"That early data is encouraging," Oster told CNN earlier this month.

"The process of opening schools doesn't seem to be driving epidemics outside of the school," she said. "These risks may be lower than people thought."

For Cicero, however, even if New York City has sustained success it is not enough to draw conclusions.

"If NYC public schools are able to maintain their hybrid status without large outbreaks, this will be testament to their faithful execution of these important public health measures. It won't be proof that all schools can open safely regardless of whether students and teachers wear masks and regardless of whether physical distance is enforced."

Alexis Barad-Cutler lives in Brooklyn Heights and has two sons in first and fourth grade that are each in school two days a week. There have been no cases of Covid-19 at their elementary school.

"I'm feeling really optimistic," Barad-Cutler said. "I expected at the end of the summer, going into the school year was that we would for sure be closed down by now."

Barad-Cutler, founder of Not Safe for Mom Group, a community group for mothers, said a huge topic for her members over the summer was whether it was safe for their kids to return to school.

"The question of should we send our kids back to school was one of the most contentious topics that we could have possibly discussed," she said. "I think that New York City has set a really great example in terms of their safety measures across the board."

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