DOE, Bronx officials tout optimism in return to school plan

More than 800 students and staff in New York City’s public school system tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the closure of hundreds of classrooms, according to city Department of Education data.
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

NYC Department of Education and Bronx school administrators expressed optimism for the upcoming school year, despite rising COVID-19 cases and skepticism from some parents on their child’s safety when they return for in-person learning on Sept. 13.

During a Back to School virtual forum on Thursday, NYC Schools Chancellor Miesha Ross Porter championed the return to in-person learning as a “significant part” of New York City’s recovery against COVID-19, which has seen some roadblocks due to the emerging Delta variant.

According to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, children ages 5-17 have the highest rates of COVID infection in the city right now.

The city Department of Education (DOE) will set up vaccination sites within school buildings serving vaccine-eligible students, or kids between the ages of 12 and 17, which will administer first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine during the first week of classes which begins on Sept. 13.

The DOE’s protocol for minimizing the spread of COVID-19 and preventing mass cancellations through the year includes a universal masking policy for people inside a school facility, daily health screenings, and compliance for all DOE staff and schoolteachers to be vaccinated by Sept. 27.

Roughly 60% of DOE staff is fully vaccinated, according to city officials.

“Vaccines are our passport out of this pandemic, period,” said Ross Porter. “And they will work hand-in-hand with other safety measures … I won’t pretend this year’s back-to-school event is normal.”

The city’s reopening guide says that 10% of unvaccinated students will be tested every two weeks, a change from last spring’s guideline that saw 20% of students tested weekly.

According to Daniel Stephens, deputy commissioner for Family and Child Health at the city Health Department, 62% or roughly 320,000 of NYC’s 12-17 population are fully vaccinated, which is 10% above the national average.

All students and staff must also complete a health screening form before entering school each day, confirming that they do not currently have COVID-19 symptoms, have not recently tested positive for COVID-19, and are not currently required to quarantine based on close contact with an infected person.

All students and staff feeling ill must stay home and get tested for COVID-19.

One parent, Albelchi Felix, whose daughter attends PS 209 on East 183rd Street in District 10, was skeptical of the social distancing in the school’s small classrooms.

“We’ve been told this evening about health and safety but I’m very skeptical because I know my child’s classrooms are small, so I’m really curious how this social distancing will be effective?” Felix said. “Especially when they are so small and really young at 4 or 5 years old.”

Administrators said that policies such as designated mask breaks, which allow students to remove face masks during lunchtime so students can eat comfortably at a safe distance from one another.

Additionally, NYC schools will also adhere to CDC guidelines regarding physical spacing, which “recommends schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms to reduce transmission risk.”

A few parents during the forum asked about circumstances in which a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19, and if that would lead to closures. According to administrators, if there is a positive case with a student in an elementary school classroom, all students in the class will be instructed to quarantine for 10 calendar days and will conduct remote learning for that time period.

The policy is different for middle school and high school classrooms.

If there is a positive case in a classroom, students who are:

  • At least 12 years old, vaccinated and not symptomatic: Can continue to attend school in-person, but are encouraged to get a COVID-19 test 3-5 days after exposure, out of an abundance of caution.
  • At least 12 years old, vaccinated and are symptomatic: Will be directed to quarantine for 10 calendar days, and will have access to remote learning for that time
  • Unvaccinated: Will quarantine for 10 calendar days and will have access to remote learning. On day 5 of the quarantine, students may take a COVID-19 test, and can return to in-person learning after day 7 with a negative result.

School closures will be determined by the city’s Health Department in event of widespread COVID-19 transmission in the school.

An aggregate of answers taken from pre-submitted questions did raise issues with a lack of parent diversity on the panel. However, no questions from the forum were accusatory or veered into anti-vaccination stances.

Reach Robbie Sequeira at rsequeira@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter @bronxtimes and Facebook @bronxtimes.

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