Monday, Sept. 21, was supposed to mark the start of in-person classes for New York City's 1.1 million public school students. It was the only big-city district planning to start the school year in person. But with just four days to go, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced that only the youngest students, in 3-K and Pre-K, and those with significant special needs, would be coming back on Sept. 21. The rest of the students will phase in by grade level between through Oct. 1.
In announcing the changes, the mayor said his decision stemmed from an abundance of caution. "We have got to get it right for our kids," he said. "They lost a lot."
It was the latest in a series of upheavals for parents, educators and students in the nation's largest school district, and the second time the district has announced changes to the start of the school year just a few days in advance. The city's educator's unions have for weeks been raising concerns over the issues of safety and staffing that the mayor cited as the basis for the latest decision.
The latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts the city in the "light green" zone — far ahead of most places around the country. In the past few weeks, 55 teachers have reportedly tested positive for COVID, out of 17,000 tested. That's a very low ratio — lower than the city as a whole.
However, as teachers have started to come back into buildings, complaints have grown about ventilation and lack of protective equipment. Some teachers have been working outside their buildings as a form of protest.
One school in Brooklyn had to shut down because it had two positive cases among teachers.
The other issues are budget and staffing. The City's Independent Budget Office released an estimate that the cost of bringing schools fully in compliance with stated plans would cost $32 million a week. And that over 11,000 new teachers would be needed to cover both in-person and online courses.
Tajh Sutton, a public school parent and an education advocate in Brooklyn, says the problem is a lack of consultation with the various stakeholders.
"In this so-called planning that's happening, we're seeing all these gaps because they didn't include families, they didn't include teachers, they didn't include students."
She doesn't think the announced delay of one week will be enough to address these gaps: "As if that's going to change the material conditions of the schools or magically have the funding we need up here."
New CDC guidelines for opening schools
That "light green" designation for New York was part of new, updated guidance the CDC released this week to help districts decide when it's safe to reopen school buildings. The guidelines included a clear, color-coded system that rates a district's risk level — from red, the highest risk of transmission, to dark green, the lowest. The colors are based on both the number of community infections, as well as the school's ability to adhere to key mitigation strategies like social distancing, masks and contact tracing.
The guidance, coming as it did in mid-September, is too late to inform most districts' reopening plans. An analysis by Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the school of public health at Brown University, found that 88 percent of people in the U.S. live in counties where the risk is rated either "higher" (orange) or "highest" (red).
Campuses order two-week lockdowns to curb COVID-19 spread
On the higher education front, the rising number of COVID-19 cases on campuses drove a number of universities to impose a two-week quarantine. In Colorado, students at the University of Colorado Boulder were asked by the local health department to only leave their homes or dorms for essential needs.
This follows earlier lockdowns like that at Notre Dame University, a school that came out of a two-week quarantine and resumed in-person classes afterwards. Notre Dame reported lower case numbers following the two weeks, suggesting the pause may have been effective. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which mandated a mini-lockdown following higher-than-expected positive cases of coronavirus, also found its numbers decreased, though experts there said it was too early to tell if the measures were successful.