Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City laid out a series of long-awaited safety protocols for schools on Thursday as he seeks to reassure parents who are concerned that the Delta variant of the coronavirus will upend the school year.
The mayor’s announcement follows weeks of rising alarm from parents and educators about the city’s plan to reopen its schools at full capacity, without a remote learning option. The first day of school for city’s roughly 1 million students is Sept. 13.
“Think about a child who hasn’t been inside a classroom in a year in a half, that’s not supposed to happen, we can’t let that happen anymore,” Mr. de Blasio said during a news conference.
As part of the new protocols, the city will test a random sample of 10 percent of unvaccinated people in schools every other week, a group that will include only students later this fall, when all adults will be required to be fully vaccinated, the mayor said. That means all children in elementary school will be subjected to testing, pending parent consent, while only unvaccinated middle and high schoolers will be tested.
Children 12 and older have been eligible to get vaccinated since mid-May, but it remains unclear when those younger than 12 might become eligible.
The testing program is more modest in scope compared to last year, when there were roughly 600,000 fewer children in schools because so many families chose remote learning. Last school year, the city initially tested 10 percent of all people in schools, but increased it to 20 percent in the spring, when the mayor relaxed quarantining rules.
The mayor defended the plan on Thursday, saying the city did not need as much testing with all staff and many students vaccinated. He said the city could increase testing in schools or neighborhoods as needed.
Mr. de Blasio is also aiming to avoid the frequent classroom and school closures that proved so disruptive for children and educators during the last school year. This year, when someone in a classroom tests positive, only unvaccinated close contacts will have to quarantine for 10 days. (It was unclear who would be considered a close contact.) That system is more conservative than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, but health officials said they were trying to strike a balance between safety and minimizing disruption.
Middle and high school students who are unvaccinated but are considered close contacts of an infected person can leave quarantine early if they receive a negative test result five days into their quarantine.
Buildings will close for 10 days if there is evidence of widespread transmission as determined by the city’s disease detectives.
Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
- Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
Elementary school students learning at home during quarantine will receive live online instruction from their teachers, but quarantined older students will work on their assignments on their own at home. The city is still finalizing details with unions on who will teach remote classes.
The city is planning to expand an existing program that allows medically vulnerable children to get a few hours of in-person, at-home instruction a week or online learning. More students will qualify for that program this year compared to previous years, and the city expects several thousand students to participate.
All students and staff will be required to wear masks, and each classroom will also have two air purifiers. Principals have been instructed to keep three feet of distance between students everywhere possible, and city officials said distancing will be possible in the vast majority of classrooms. Recent federal guidance called for universal masking in schools, regardless of vaccination status, with a focus on returning to in-person learning in the fall.
City schools saw extremely low virus transmission last year; the test positivity rate was .03 at the end of the school year in June.