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New York City postpones schools reopening from coronavirus shutdown until Sept. 21

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday that New York City is delaying the reopening of its public schools from Sept. 10 until Sept. 21, but remote instruction will start Sept. 16. Credit: NY Mayor's Office

No student will return to a New York City public school building until Sept. 21, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday, delaying the citywide reopening he’d insisted for months would be Sept. 10.

School will begin online for everyone on Sept. 16, according to de Blasio's announcement at a news conference with the United Federation of Teachers, the labor union that had weighed a strike vote as soon as Tuesday over the initial reopening plans.

Now, under a deal with the UFT and other unions, the city plans to randomly test each month as many as 20% of students and adults in each building, with shutdown plans depending on COVID-19 infection rates.

The city agreed to temporarily shut down any school where there are coronavirus cases in at least two different classes, the UFT said in a news release distributed Tuesday afternoon.

The public schools are to open with a hybrid model, with some students attending in person for part of the week and spending part of it online, while others remain entirely online according to each family’s choice.

The schools, which serve 1.1 million students, have been closed since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

De Blasio said that on Sept. 21 “the school buildings open full strength, we go to blended learning as has been described previously. We have students coming into the buildings.”

For weeks, de Blasio has been under pressure from other citywide elected officials as well as the UFT, the public schools’ main labor union, to postpone the reopening.

But Michael Mulgrew, the union president, appearing at de Blasio’s news conference, said his membership is now on board with the city.

“I can say to you now, because we have our independent medical experts, have stamped this plan, and we now can say that New York City’s public school system has the most aggressive policies and greatest safeguards of any school system in the United States of America,” he said.

The union was to take a strike authorization vote on Tuesday.

Teachers are to report beginning Sept. 8, de Blasio said. He said there would be preparation work by school personnel between then and the reopening of the buildings. He did not respond to a question seeking details of what that work entails.

Between 10% and 20% of the school population is to be randomly tested every month, Dr. Jay Varma, a senior adviser to the city on the coronavirus pandemic, said at the news conference held at New York City Hall.

The testing would require parental consent for those younger than 18. De Blasio said he doesn't expect parents would refuse, though he acknowledged “it’s a conceivable reality.”

“If we really have a parent who’s recalcitrant, we’re gonna have to decide, in that case, what to do, and it may end up being a situation where the child is not in school, but I don’t think we’re gonna see that,” he said.

The UFT said that the testing sample would be of all students and adults in each school building, with results available within 48 hours.

Any selected student whose parent doesn’t give consent for the testing would need to switch to all-remote learning, and staff that refuses testing would be placed on unpaid leave, the release said, adding that a positive result would lead to 14 days of quarantine.

A positive test or tests in a class would lead the entire group to be put on remote instruction, the UFT said. And if there is more than one case in a school beyond a single class, the entire school building would move to remote instruction until contact tracing is complete.

In addition, schools must switch to all-remote instruction if the city’s percentage of positive tests equal 3% or higher using a 7-day rolling average, according to the union.

But, the UFT added, “even if the overall case rates across New York City were to remain low, all school buildings could be closed if there were recurrent, uncontrolled outbreaks in schools of COVID-19.”

The question of opening schools has confounded governments worldwide, as the desire to reopen so students can socialize and learn, and adults can return to work, is balanced with the need to halt the virus’ spread.

Among the challenges: can students diligently wear face coverings and maintain mandated social distance? There have been scientific findings that although kids aren’t known to be immediately hurt by the virus, their nasal secretions contain the virus at up to 100 times those of others, and they can spread the virus to others, including at home.

Highlights of the NYC schools agreement

-School buildings reopen Sept. 21, instead of Sept. 10.

-Remote learning begins Sept. 16.

-Personnel returns Sept. 8.

-Random, monthly testing of 10% to 20% of every school building, students and adults.

-One or more COVID cases confined to a single class means the entire class moves to online learning until contact tracing is complete.

-More than one case in a school beyond a single classroom will send the entire building to remote instruction until contact tracing is complete.

-All schools move to remote sessions if the citywide positivity rate of a 7-day average is 3% or higher.

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