Covid and N.Y.C. Schools: Back to Class, and Finally Back to Normal?

Many teachers and families have been counting on the upcoming school year to bring a return to normalcy.

In New York City, as in many other parts of the country, the start of school on Sept. 8 may very well feel more like the days before the Covid-19 pandemic, as the school system rolls back restrictions, including an end to in-school PCR testing and the requirement that families fill out a daily health screening form.

The changes reflect the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s shift toward learning how to live with the virus, instead of allowing it to disrupt life. “We know that Covid-19 is here to stay,” Greta Massetti, a C.D.C. epidemiologist, said at a news briefing last week.

The new guidelines were posted on the Department of Education website a week after the C.D.C. loosened its own Covid-19 guidelines: The agency no longer recommends that people stay six feet away from others or that people who are exposed to Covid quarantine at home, although it recommends that they still wear a mask for 10 days.

After a wave earlier in the summer, coronavirus cases in New York City dropped 34 percent during the first two weeks of August, and hospitalizations decreased 22 percent over the same time period, according to The New York Times’s data dashboard.

But some pediatricians are concerned that the relaxing of Covid-19 restrictions in schools could lead to another surge.

“I think we are all expecting to see a lot more cases moving forward,” said Toni Eyssallenne, an internist and pediatrician for Strong Children’s Wellness, a Queens-based medical group.

Here’s the latest information about Covid-19 guidelines in the New York City public school system.

Will there be any vaccine mandates?

While vaccinations are required for polio, measles and mumps, Covid vaccinations will not be required to attend school. Around 61 percent of children ages 5 to 17 are fully vaccinated against Covid in New York City, and around 14 percent have received additional doses or boosters, according to city data.

However, Covid vaccination is required for students participating in certain extracurricular activities, including some sports.

Vaccination is also required for any visitors who enter a school and for teachers and other people who work in Education Department buildings.

The Fight Against Polio

The highly contagious virus was one of the most feared diseases until the 1950s, when the first vaccine was developed.

  • New York Case: Officials in a New York suburb reported a case of polio in an unvaccinated adult man in July — the first U.S. case in nearly a decade.
  • A Multibillion-Dollar Effort: A partnership of national governments and health organizations has a plan to rid the world of polio by 2026, which is now endemic in just two countries.
  • Major Obstacles: Two of the three strains of polio have been eliminated from the Earth. But new barriers to full eradication keep cropping up.
  • Childhood Vaccinations Drop: A sharp decline in childhood vaccinations around the world during the coronavirus pandemic — including those for polio — could threaten the lives of millions of children.

Dr. Suzette Brown, a pediatrician and the co-founder of Strong Children Wellness, said that “relaxing the mandates puts a lot of imperative on vaccination,” and said the department should continue to encourage students to get vaccinated if it wasn’t going to continue other protective measures.

Will there be any mask mandates?

The Education Department “strongly” recommends that masks be worn when indoors, especially in crowded indoor settings, and will also make masks available at schools. But they are not required for most students.

Students who have tested positive will be required to wear masks upon returning to school on Days 6 through 10 after their positive test or onset of symptoms. Masks will also be required when visiting a school’s medical room, nurse’s office or school-based health center. Students and staff are encouraged to wear a mask when they are exposed to Covid-19 for 10 days.

People with compromised immunity are also encouraged to wear a mask.

Will there still be a daily health questionnaire?

In the past, families were required to answer a set of questions every school day asking whether they were experiencing Covid symptoms or had been exposed to the virus. This school year, the Education Department will end that requirement, although it encourages students and staff who show symptoms of Covid-19 or other illnesses to stay home.

What happens if I have been exposed to Covid-19?

Students and staff are encouraged to take two tests on Day 4 and Day 5 after their exposure, at least 24 hours apart. The Education Department’s guidelines reflect those of the C.D.C.: People who have been exposed should monitor their symptoms for 10 days and wear a mask for that time.

What will testing look like?

Schools will send students and staff home with four tests per month, down from two a week during the last school year. In addition, starting on the first day of school, students and staff with symptoms can ask for tests from their school. (Students and staff with symptoms are asked to stay home.)

The Education Department will not offer PCR testing inside schools.

The United Federation of Teachers, the teachers’ union, said that although the number of tests sent home was decreasing, the department had promised to provide a sufficient number for schools.

“As Covid changes as a disease, our responses also have to evolve,” said a spokeswoman for the union.

What happens if I test positive?

Students and staff must isolate for five days, and can return to school on the sixth day if they have no symptoms or if their symptoms have improved. Mask wearing is required until 10 days after the start of symptoms, or the date of their first positive test, depending on which happened first.

The Education Department encourages people to report their positive cases to their school. The Situation Room, which tracks Covid cases for the department, will notify school communities of cases in their schools through email and through a map of Covid cases in schools on the department website.

How will schools purify the air?

The department has distributed over 160,000 air purifiers — at least two in every classroom. Officials plan to monitor ventilation daily.

School Chancellor David Banks moved in August to spend $27 million on a contract to replace filters in the classroom air purifiers. The Department of Education has faced criticism in the past over filters, with an WNYC/Gothamist investigation finding that officials in the de Blasio administration had purchased inadequate filters.

Should parents also be worried about monkeypox and polio?

Polio risk is low, because vaccination against polio is required to attend schools in New York State. Children under 5 and infants are most at risk of being infected by polio if they have not been vaccinated.

At least five children had been diagnosed with monkeypox by early August, but the illness has primarily spread among adults. Attending school is unlikely to put people at risk of a monkeypox exposure.

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