New York Governor Kathy Hochul said the state is expecting to receive millions of additional COVID-19 tests by the end of this week, and will make most of them available to school districts, including one million kits—each with two tests—for New York City’s schools.
“They can be in hand for the school districts to be able to deploy them the way they choose,” Hochul said at a press conference Monday.
The news comes after an especially chaotic week in which the city’s public schools saw cases and closures spike before winter break. As the district’s 1,600 public schools limped to the finish line, many educators, parents and experts called on the school system to dramatically overhaul its Covid testing program.
In an interview on NY1 last week, United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew indicated that – without a major expansion in testing – the union could block a return to buildings on January 3rd. The union represents 94,000 teachers and other aides.
“Our testing system that we have is now broken,” he said. “I’m working with the Adams administration. We’ll work through this entire break. But if we don’t see we’re getting the testing system we know we need to keep our schools and communities and children remain safe then we’re going to have to take a different position on this whole schools have to remain open.”
Education department spokesperson Katie O’Hanlon said the de Blasio administration is working closely with the incoming Adams administration on plans for returning to schools safely in January. She said the city will release more information about how tests will be deployed in the coming days.
“[We] are grateful for these additional tests, which will be layered into our nation-leading school safety protocols,” she said Monday. “The well-being of students and staff is our top priority and we’ll have more to share on how we’re strengthening our policies that keep our school communities safe soon.”
But experts who spoke to WNYC/Gothamist said it is essential that the city take a more proactive approach to testing, including prioritizing access to tests for students and staff before school reopens.
They said the city must also increase testing within public schools moving forward. The district serves 940,000 students.
“I’d like to see all faculty, students and staff have unfettered access to the testing that they may need,” said Denis Nash, professor of epidemiology at the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health.
Ideally, Nash said, that would mean supplying all staff and students with rapid at-home tests before schools reopen, as Boston is doing, although he notes that at-home test results can be skewed by user error.
If providing at-home tests to the million-plus students and staff at public schools is not possible, he said the city should give those groups priorities at test sites – alongside health care professionals, nursing home staff, and other essential workers. “A major priority of ours needs to be having students, faculty and staff at the front of the line,” he said.
After classes resume, Nash said the school system must address “design flaws” within its current testing program. Each school is supposed to test 10% of unvaccinated individuals every week. But families must sign consent forms in order to be tested, and many have not.
Now that omicron is causing more breakthrough cases, Nash said it’s essential that schools test vaccinated students and staff as well. “Exclusion of vaccinated people just became an even bigger blind spot,” he said. He also believes that students and staff should not have to proactively consent in order to be tested, adding that testing 10% of school communities is fine, as long as it’s “a representative sample of everyone going through the doors on a given day.”
Teachers at several schools are also calling for more testing and transparency.
At MS 839 in Brooklyn, there were nine confirmed cases by the middle of the week and 70% of the school was in partial quarantine. Teachers planned a “sick out” on Thursday, saying the conditions at the school were not safe; ultimately the education department permitted the school to go remote for the day.
MS 839 teacher Nsangi Kariamu said she would like to see the school system require a negative PCR test for all students and staff before returning to school, and test all students and staff weekly after that.
“Our main priority is creating a safe environment for our staff and students,” she said. “This means that before schools reopen in January, it is extremely necessary that the city increases their testing resources and provides schools with universal weekly and baseline COVID tests.”
An administrator in north Brooklyn, who asked to be anonymous because of concerns about job security, agreed that the education department should relax its limits around who can be tested when. Currently, he said the DOE’s guidance allows up to 10% of school staff to be tested (or seven people of their 70-member staff), and that’s only if there are tests available after students are tested. However, on Thursday, only one student who consented for testing was present, and, in spite of having dozens of extra tests, the teacher said only seven of 30 interested staffers were screened, leaving the others waiting on hours-long lines for COVID tests from outside providers.
“There’s no ethical or logical reason to not test people who can’t get tested elsewhere,” he said.
The administrator also thinks schools should reopen a week later, to give school staff time to adapt to whatever protocols the Adams administration might implement.
Donna Hallas, clinical professor and director of the Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Program at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing, said the city should be prepared to do a week or two of remote learning after the holidays if necessary. “If the amount of cases is doubling and tripling and the positivity rate continues to go up, it’s probably prudent to reconsider and do remote for two weeks,” she said.
According to recent state data, hospitals in and around New York City had an average of about 73 pediatric COVID patients each day — up from just 18 per day at the start of the month. The majority of those patients were unvaccinated. State health officials are urging families to vaccinate their children during the winter recess.
Still, on Monday, Hochul said she was committed to reopening schools as planned immediately after the break. “We went through the social experiment of keeping [students] isolated,” she said. “And the results are now showing that the learning did not continue the way it should have and the way we hoped it would, as well as the emotional effect and the toll it is taking.”
She said her commitment to reopening immediately after the break is “subject to possible changes,” but “unwavering as of this date.”
With reporting from Nsikan Akpan and Jon Campbell