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NYC to reopen schools — but no in-person learning for upper grades until new year

November 30, 2020 David B. Caruso and Karen Matthews Associated Press
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Classroom doors will open for elementary school students next week in New York City, but middle school and high school students won’t return to in-person learning until after the holiday break, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday.

“Obviously, from now until the Christmas break, the focus will be on the younger kids,” de Blasio said on CNN. “When we come back, my hope is we can then move quickly to middle school and high school.”

The Democratic mayor said the staggered approach is necessary because of the amount of COVID-19 testing that is required to open schools safely amid rising infection rates across the city.

De Blasio announced Sunday that school buildings will start reopening Dec. 7 for students whose parents have chosen a mix of in-person and remote learning. Schools have been shuttered since Nov. 19, but de Blasio said weekly COVID-19 testing in all schools will make it possible to reopen safely.

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School programs serving special-needs students at all grade levels will open to in-person learning starting Dec. 10, de Blasio said.

The announcement marks a major policy reversal for the nation’s largest school system, less than two weeks after de Blasio announced that schools were shutting down because of a rising number of COVID-19 cases in the city.

De Blasio had said previously that schools would close when the city hit a threshold of 3 percent of coronavirus tests coming back positive. That threshold, which the city has exceeded in recent weeks, no longer makes sense, the mayor said.

“What has happened is we’ve proven the schools can be extraordinarily safe,” de Blasio said. “The schools are some of the safest places to be right now in New York City, which is a credit to our educators and our staff and our parents.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, said he supports de Blasio’s school reopening plan.

“I think that’s the right direction,” the governor said in a conference call with reporters. “We do have new facts and information on schools.”

Masks and social distancing were mandatory during the weeks that schools were open, and class sizes were a fraction of the pre-pandemic average of up to 25 to 30 students.

About 190,000 students will be eligible to return to classrooms in the first round of reopening, just a fraction of the more than 1 million total pupils in the system. The great majority of parents have opted to have their kids learn remotely by computer.

De Blasio said that many of those returning in person will be able to attend five days of class a week, up from one to three days previously.

Students attending in person will be required to undergo frequent testing for the virus. Previously, the city had set a target of testing 20 percent of teachers and students in each school building once a month. Now, the testing will be weekly.

Schools that are in COVID-19 orange zones designated by Cuomo because of rising infection rates will reopen according to rules set by the governor, de Blasio said.

De Blasio said at a news briefing that he had discussed his reopening plan with Cuomo. “We all agree that we have a different reality than what we had in the summer and that this is now the way forward and the best way to protect everyone,” he said.

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, said the union supports the reopening plan as long as stringent testing is in place.

“This strategy — properly implemented — will allow us to offer safe in-person instruction to the maximum number of students until we beat the pandemic,” Mulgrew said in a statement.

Mark Cannizzaro, the president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents principals, said school leaders “deeply understand the need for children to learn in person as regularly as possible, so long as all safety protocols are based on the guidance of medical professionals.”

A parents group called #KeepNYCSchoolsOpen praised the mayor’s reopening plan but said it doesn’t go far enough. “Our schools never should have closed, and we are thrilled that 190,000 kids will be back in school next week,” the group said in a statement. “But the mayor has left behind 145,000 kids in grades 6-12, without any explanation or timeline for reopening. We will not rest until they are back in school, where they need to be.”

New York City exceeded the 3 percent threshold early in November, and things have slightly worsened since then. More than 9,300 New York City residents have tested positive for the virus over the past seven days.

Rates of positive coronavirus tests at school sites have remained low, however. A spokesperson for de Blasio said that more than 160,000 students and school staff members have been tested and that only about 0.25 percent of the results were positive.

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