Rising COVID cases force schools response on quarantines and closures


With one week before the start of winter vacation, schools in New York City are feeling the pressure of increasing COVID-19 cases.

Principals are reminded to be prepared in case they need to close a classroom or even their entire school. The education department is also giving principals more leeway to act when positive cases are discovered, as the city’s own rapid response team seems inundated with calls and emails.

This week, some principals have received calls from their superintendents, others have received emails with a checklist of what is needed in case of distance learning, such as making sure students and staff have devices and connections.

After the messages sparked rumors the city was preparing for a full-scale shutdown, education department officials followed up with superintendents and principals on Thursday. In red, underlined and bold letters, the message read, “There is no plan for a system-wide school closure and a pivot to distance learning.”

Amid signs of tension in the city situation room, the interagency rapid response team tasked with conducting test and traceability investigations in schools, officials said they would increase staffing. More than 500 people will work in the team, up from 275 currently, according to the education department.

Some principals are increasingly frustrated with the delays in the situation room responding to positive cases, and many parents have tried to fill the information void and make sense of the confusing messages.

Dr Jay Varma, senior health adviser to the mayor, noted a record increase in the number of cases in the city, doubling in three days to 7.8% as of December 12.

“We’ve never seen this before” he tweeted.

The number of school-aged children testing positive has also increased. As of Monday, there were 502 new cases among those aged 5 to 17, according to state data. As of Wednesday, there were 1,085 new positive tests.

The seven-day average of positive tests administered in schools stood at 0.87% on December 15, Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference on Thursday.

Concerns about the omicron variant

Anna Bershteyn, assistant professor of population health at the Grossman School of Medicine at New York University, said the increases are consistent with the rapid spread of the omicron variant of the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the variant accounts for about 13% of cases in the city.

“Honestly, omicron is so transmissible that it will be very difficult to prevent cases,” Bershteyn said.

She said the city should double the vaccines by encouraging every adult who works in schools to receive a booster, while continuing to focus on increasing ventilation, social distancing and the student cohort to limit the exposure. Even though cases may increase, she said: “I don’t think this should result in the schools being closed.”

“I don’t think it is possible to prevent an increase in cases among schoolchildren, but it is possible to make schools a safer place for children during the omicron wave, compared to closed schools and children who spend their days in the community, ”Bershteyn said.

Education Ministry officials continued to tout school safety, citing that only 1% of classrooms are currently closed for quarantine.

“In anticipation of a winter increase in cases, we have already started hiring more situation room staff, expanding testing in schools to include teachers, fully vaccinating our staff, and vaccinating every student. , and are in constant communication with schools to reiterate the importance of closely monitoring safety measures, ”Education Department spokesman Nathaniel Styer said in a statement.

Give more autonomy to school leaders

As the increase in cases weighs on the situation room, education department officials updated their guidelines to principals on Thursday, now allowing principals to call for quarantines before getting the fire fired. official green.

“If a positive case or case intervention arises late in the day, managers can call the case’s close contacts and ask them to stay home the next day and wait for further advice from the situation room while ‘they saw a positive COVID test result at their school,’ the email told the principals. “The director does not need to wait for the situation room to give him the final intervention and the package of letters before communicating with these close contacts. ”

That direction, however, raised more questions than it answered, said Mark Cannizzaro, chair of the Council for School Supervisors and Administrators, or CSA, the union representing principals and other school administrators. He slammed the education department for including the change in an email without working out details with the union, such as who else directors should notify if they quarantined people or what would happen. whether a director’s decision differed from the situation room appeal.

“The cases are increasing, and [the Situation Room] can’t handle the volume, ”Cannizzaro said. “Maybe someone made this change with the right intention – let the managers do it so they don’t wait – but there should have been a meeting about it. ”

Given the increased workload for principals this school year, the union recently reached an agreement with the education department for departmental officials to take on some of the quarantine navigation duties. The transition was supposed to take place on December 6, but that did not happen, Cannizzaro said.

Confusion and frustration of parents

Brooklyn mom Meghan Groome has expressed frustration with the situation room after her two children’s schools recently had cases of COVID. It took five days for the testing and tracing body to inform them that her 3-year-old daughter in a city-run 3-K program should quarantine herself after possible exposure.

“The idea that the Situation Room was set up to provide parents with transparent and up-to-date information about COVID cases in their schools has collapsed,” Groome said. “Parents hear rumors and get information from other parents and teachers, but no real confirmation from the situation room.”

The Situation Room messages were confusing for Bronx mum Alycia Dingle, who received an email last week regarding her son’s school, the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, noting that there was more than 20 cases, triggering the closure of the school. Emails continued to arrive daily. But it turned out that her son’s school was not closed – another school that shares the same building was. This co-located school, Eximius College Preparatory Academy, accounted for the bulk of the positive cases: 20 of the 23 found in the building.

The director of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics sent a clarifying email saying their doors were still open. Yet, whether parents are confused or afraid, many have kept their children at home. About 19% of students were absent on Tuesday. As of Wednesday, 26% had stayed at home, according to public data.

As soon as Dingle saw the Situation Room email with the high case count, she had her son tested – and he was positive. He now has a fever, cough, and fatigue.

Dingle fears he contracted the virus at school, where the two schools share stairwells, the gymnasium and the cafeteria.

About a month earlier, Dingle’s daughter had contracted the virus. His school, Soundview Academy for Culture and Scholarship, had more than a dozen cases before Thanksgiving. Although the Situation Room investigated, they never closed the school.


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