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NY state’s new COVID maps could mean another wave of school closures

October 7, 2020 Reema Amin, Chalkbeat New York
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This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here.

The city has already closed 100 public schools and 200 private ones in nine hot spot ZIP codes.

Just one day after New York City shuttered hundreds of public and private schools in coronavirus hot spots, Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced new boundaries for closures in Brooklyn and Queens, meaning additional shutdowns could come as soon as Thursday.

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City and state officials did not immediately say which schools could be impacted by the new state designations. Schools that have already closed will remain closed, and officials were still learning details about “what this means for school buildings,” Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a tweet Tuesday evening.

The new maps came the same day the city closed 100 public schools and 200 private ones in ZIP codes where the coronavirus positivity rate had surpassed 3 percent for at least a week. Even as Cuomo approved the city’s plan Monday, he vowed to come up with a better way to determine which schools and businesses should close. He said the new maps were more accurate because they are based on the street addresses, rather than just the ZIP codes, of those who have tested positive for the coronavirus.

“You take the most dramatic action within the cluster itself, where you have the highest density of cases, understanding that the people in that cluster interface with the surrounding communities,” and enact fewer restrictions in surrounding and outlying areas, Cuomo told reporters Tuesday.

The new maps, covering Brooklyn and two parts of Queens, carry three color-coded designations, and schools must remain closed in two of them: a central red zone, which covers the immediate cluster of coronavirus cases, and a surrounding orange zone, called a “warning” area. Schools can remain open in the outermost zone — a yellow “precautionary” area — but a portion of its students and staff must undergo weekly coronavirus testing for at least 14 days. The state laid out similar maps for hot spots outside of the city.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the city teachers’ union, which pushed for the ZIP code closures, applauded the state’s mandate for more testing.

Cuomo’s announcement marked yet another change in plans for New York City’s district school families. New closures are likely to send some families scrambling to adjust their work schedules or child care plans and will be disappointing for students and teachers who were excited to be back inside school buildings.

“It’s taken all summer to kind of embrace what was going to exist, and now all of a sudden, not even two weeks into school, things have to get flipped on their head again,” said Jessica Dowshen, whose third grade son attends PS 139 in Flatbush, Brooklyn, which is currently open but appears to be inside of an orange closure zone on the state’s new map.

Shortly after Cuomo’s announcement, mayoral spokesperson Bill Neidhardt said the city would “be consulted” on the new maps and would implement any changes to school closure plans as soon as Thursday. Rich Azzopardi, an aide of the governor, said in a tweet that the maps are final, suggesting they can’t be contested.

All state-issued restrictions must be implemented by Friday, Cuomo said. The closures would remain in effect for at least 14 days, at which point the state will review them.

On Tuesday, the new state maps were already causing confusion. Some of the boundaries cut diagonally across streets or cover some portion of a block while leaving another part out. (There appeared to be some confusion at City Hall, too. Neidhardt tweeted a GIF of a confused Kermit the Frog trying to read a map.)

City officials have planned to test 10-20 percent of students and staff every month and have ramped up testing at schools in hot spots. So far, the 1,351 tests administered at 35 schools in hot spot ZIP codes yielded two positive results, de Blasio told reporters Tuesday morning. Earlier Tuesday, a spokesperson for the education department said weekly testing is “neither feasible nor necessary.”

Dr. Benjamin P. Linas, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University, said more frequent, large-scale testing will help public health officials identify the prevalence of coronavirus in a school.

“If this really is a surge instead of a gradual uptick, wouldn’t you rather know next week instead of next month?” Dr. Linas said. Still, the city and state should continue with mask-wearing and social distancing measures because “there is no world in which you can test away the coronavirus.”

Under Cuomo’s plan, schools and non-essential businesses in the red zone would have to close. In the orange zone, all schools, as well as “high-risk” non-essential businesses, such as gyms and salons, would have to stay shut. Limited restaurants would be permitted to serve outdoors.

Dr. Linas called it “not unreasonable” to shutter campuses in areas experiencing spikes, but added: “I don’t understand why we would prioritize the schools for shut down” if other segments of the economy were allowed to remain open.

On Monday, Cuomo approved a city proposal to close about 100 public and 200 private schools, along with about 100 pre-K and child care centers that provide subsidized care, in nine ZIP codes in Brooklyn and Queens. He ordered closures to begin Tuesday, a day before de Blasio had planned to shutter those campuses.

The governor’s office did not explain how exactly it came up with the size of the boundaries, or what positivity rate in a community would trigger this closure plan.

In a news release, the governor’s office said the new plan was created in consultation with Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control; Noam Ross, who studies disease outbreaks for nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance; and Michael P. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Dowshen, the mother from PS 139, said her son has only attended school once in person since buildings reopened for elementary schoolers on Sept. 29, but it was his favorite day so far because he had missed friends and teachers. The news of a closure will make him “really sad,” she said. Working from home, Dowshen envisions leaving a chunk of her work for the evening in order to avoid interruptions from her son if he switches to an all-remote schedule.

On the flip side, Dowshen said PS 139 has struggled to find enough staff to cover instruction for children who are participating in blended learning — a mixture of in-person and at-home schooling — and those who are learning remotely full-time. Her son has only received one live remote lesson since the buildings reopened, she said.

“If we go back to full-remote, it would mean he would see his teacher every day, which is kind of a good thing, especially since it’s so early on in the school year at this point,” she said. “There is kind of a positive and a negative at this point.”

Christina Veiga contributed.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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