NYC schools to reopen Jan. 3 with expanded COVID testing, relaxed quarantine rules amid omicron surge

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New York City public schools will expand on-site coronavirus testing, but relax quarantine rules for students in a bid to keep them in class as much as possible as they return for the spring semester next week amid skyrocketing infection and hospitalization rates, Mayor de Blasio announced Tuesday.

Roughly 80,000 students will be tested every week across the public school system once classes resume Jan. 3 — up from about 40,000 during the fall semester, de Blasio said in a virtual briefing at City Hall. In the fall, only unvaccinated students were eligible for the randomized in-school surveillance tests, but de Blasio said vaccinated kids will now also be able to get them.

In another policy shift, de Blasio said students who are exposed to an infected classmate will receive an at-home rapid test kit that their parents should administer as soon as they’re home. Students who are negative on the at-home test can return to school the very next day as long as they’re asymptomatic — a marked shift from the previous mandatory 10-day quarantine rule for kids exposed to an infected classmate.

“This guarantees more consistency in their education. It guarantees fewer disruptions, which parents have rightfully said have been a tremendous challenge for them,” said de Blasio, who leaves office on Saturday and was joined for his briefing by incoming Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Hochul.

“We have a lot of evidence now that tells us this is going to be the approach that works in the future,” de Blasio added, citing data from the Health Department indicating 98% of kids who have a close interaction with an infected classmate do not contract the virus.

To enable the effort, Hochul said her administration is setting aside 2 million at-home testing kits for city schools that can be distributed to students as needed in the event of a positive case.

The at-home testing initiative will depend on an honor system, by which parents are expected to tell educators about their kids’ coronavirus status without having to provide proof, according to Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi.

The expanded in-school testing program, meantime, is only available for kids whose parents provide consent forms. About 330,000 of the city’s 1 million public students have provided consent forms so far, according to de Blasio, though he added he expects that number to tick up now that vaccinated kids can also get tested.

The full-blown return to in-person schooling comes after weeks of speculation that the omicron variant would disrupt the start of the spring semester — as the city’s COVID-19 curve continues to trend in the wrong direction.

According to data released by the Health Department Tuesday, the city’s daily average of new cases has reached 20,200 — a figure de Blasio admitted was “staggering” and one “we could never have imagined.”

In a sign that more people are falling seriously ill, the city’s COVID-19 hospitalization average per every 100,000 residents reached 4.76 in the same time frame, the data showed.

On a statewide level, the outlook is even worse: Nearly 20% of all coronavirus tests conducted in the 24-hour period ending Tuesday morning came back positive, and hospitalizations continued to spike as well, according to state Health Department data.

Hochul acknowledged omicron has caused hospitalization rates to surge among children — by an unsettling 400% in the city alone in the past two weeks — but said that can’t be an obstacle to reopening schools.

“We saw the failed experiment, despite the very best efforts of incredibly hardworking, passionate teachers,” Hochul said of all-remote learning programs last year, which public health experts say resulted in worsening mental health among children, especially those from low-income families.

Fabian Wander, the father of a fourth- and fifth-grader at Public School 304 in the Bronx, agreed with Hochul and said he believes the threat of COVID-19 pales in comparison to the detrimental impacts of remote learning.

“We cannot continue to live in constant fear — this isn’t a healthy option for us,” Wander said. “We cannot go back. We cannot go back to isolation.”

Rather than reverting to remote learning, Hochul urged parents to get their kids vaccinated if they haven’t already.

“It is affecting children more, but the ones who are getting severely sick are, so far, only the unvaccinated children. So, that should be the message you need to know right now,” she said.

Adams, who’s set to be sworn in as de Blasio’s successor on Saturday, also noted that data indicates children are at a comparatively low risk of catching COVID-19 in school.

“Your children are safer in school. The numbers speak for themselves,” said Adams.

But even though he appeared alongside de Blasio for his announcement, Adams suggested at a later press conference he may adjust the outgoing mayor’s school plan once he takes over.

“We’re going to roll out our plan. It’s going to be a very clear plan,” Adams said at Brooklyn Borough Hall, adding that he wants to let de Blasio “finish his term” before criticizing any aspect of his pandemic response.

At least one of Adams’ fellow incoming elected officials said de Blasio’s return-to-school precautions are insufficient and urged the soon-to-be mayor to require that students and teachers present a negative test before they come back to class on Monday.

“As omicron spreads rapidly in our city, requiring and providing tests BEFORE students, teachers and staff go back to classrooms would go a long way to slowing this outbreak,” incoming City Comptroller Brad Lander said in a statement. “Otherwise, we’ll still only be testing a very small percentage of students, and leaving far too much opportunity for infections to accelerate through our communities.”

De Blasio countered that his team concluded it wouldn’t be logistically feasible to get all of the city’s public school students tested before the spring semester.

“We really came to the conclusion that the approach we’re taking that we announced today is the right way to go,” he said.

The city’s largest teacher’s union, the United Federation of Teachers, which has pushed de Blasio’s administration for weeks to expand testing, said Tuesday’s announcement was a step in the right direction, but stopped short of praising it.

“The real issue is whether the city can do its job — ensuring that new testing initiatives are available in every school,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement. “We are moving closer to a safe reopening of school next week. But we are not there yet.”

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