City councilmen alarmed over DOE testing protocols

Boy in mask sitting at desk in classroom
Three NYC councilmen are criticizing the city’s COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts in city schools.
Photo courtesy Getty

City councilmen Eric Dinowitz, Mark Treyger and Mark Levine criticized New York City school’s COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts Monday, warning of rising cases.

But the Department of Education (DOE) and the city’s health commissioner claim schools are among the safest places to be in the city.

The councilmen argued there should be weekly testing for all students and staff in the city’s schools.

Every DOE school in NYC randomly tests 10% of its unvaccinated students who have submitted consent forms for testing, not including pre-K and kindergarten students. Staff can also participate in the testing program, DOE spokesman Nathaniel Styer said. In total, there are 1,033,669 K-12 students in DOE schools, as of June 2020.

“I’m not interested in the spin that they’re giving us at City Hall,” said Treyger, a Brooklyn Democrat and City Council Education Committee chairman. “We do not have an adequate testing program for students and staff in the New York City school system right now.”

Treyger said just 35% of unvaccinated students returned consent forms, as of October.

DOE will soon be required to regularly share how many students opted into the testing program online, along with attendance, vaccination rates, positive cases, class closures and quarantine data on a school-specific basis starting Dec. 26, and demographic data starting Jan. 10. The requirements come from two bills Treyger brought to the City Council that will run through June 2023.

Even if city schools don’t implement testing for all, a program where students opt-out of testing would be better than the current opt-in program, said Levine, a Manhattan Democrat and chairman of the City Council Health Committee. He said schools should also provide free at-home rapid tests to families.

DOE said its schools have mask mandates, physical distancing rules, ventilation, a staff vaccine mandate and “easily available” vaccines.

“Our schools are safe because of our multi-layered approach to safety, which keeps our positivity rate low and our schools safely open,” Styer told the Bronx Times.

DOE hosts pop-up vaccination sites at its schools, where students aged 5-11 can get inoculated. But Levine said the sites are inconsistent and infrequent. Dinowitz, a Bronx Democrat and former teacher, said he has received complaints about the school sites only offering shots for younger children, leaving older siblings and parents accompanying them without the same opportunity.

DOE did not answer the Bronx Times as to why there is an age restriction for its clinics.

As of Tuesday, 35% of NYC children ages 5-12 and 82% of ages 13-17 have received at least one vaccine dose, according to the city health department.

Dinowitz claimed city schools don’t have a plan to handle an anticipated increase in cases after winter break. He said DOE and the city health department have ignored his repeated questioning on the matter.

According to DOE, in anticipation of the winter, the city increased the number of workers in the Situation Room — which tracks positive cases in schools — from 275 to more than 500. But Janella Hinds, United Federation of Teachers vice president for academic high schools, said Monday that the operation needs more employees.

As of Tuesday, 34 city classrooms were closed due to infections — with students learning remotely — a decrease from 53 on Monday. The number of classes in partial quarantine was nearly cut in half from Monday to Tuesday, from 662-336. Three schools remained closed both days.

Last year, COVID-19 cases were higher after the holidays than they had been in seven months, according to Dinowitz.

On Friday, Dec. 17, 799 classrooms were remote because of infections. A few days earlier, on Dec. 15, 877 classes were closed and there were 546 positive cases among students and teachers — more than double the 220 cases a month earlier — the councilman said.

As of Tuesday, 531 students and staff members tested positive for the virus.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday the weekly test results in schools are “extraordinarily consistent and show very low levels of COVID.”

Dr. Dave Chokshi, the city health department commissioner, said Monday the omicron variant is spreading rapidly, but the positivity rate of 1.18% from school tests is low, although higher than it was in previous weeks. He added that 0.94% of classrooms were closed from the virus while hundreds of thousands of students were learning in person.

Read our latest COVID-19 update here.

Reach Aliya Schneider at [email protected] or (718) 260-4597. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.

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