NYC public school mandates change after one week

But public health experts aren’t sure they’ll do enough to protect students and New Yorkers overall.

A student stands outside of a NYC high school.

A student stands outside of a NYC high school. Ron Adar/Shutterstock

Just one week after New York City public schools returned to full-time, in-person classes for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rules are already changing.

On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that unvaccinated students will be subject to weekly testing moving forward and that school quarantine rules would be relaxed for students, in an effort to keep as many students in class as possible. This new guidance came as outbreaks occurred at city public schools during the first week of school, which forced one school in East Harlem to shut down fully, resorting to remote learning for 10 days. These new requirements also follow city mandates that require all public teachers and school employees be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19, or receive at least a first dose of the inoculation, by Sept. 27. 

While the city’s teachers unions are pleased about the increase in student testing, they have taken issue with its new quarantining rules. The new statute will allow unvaccinated students to stay in school, even if they were exposed to an infected student, provided they were wearing masks and kept a distance of at least three feet. 

"Maybe in the mayor’s universe all children keep their distance, wear their masks correctly and leave them on all day, but in the real world of our schools, this just isn’t so, particularly in the many schools that are overcrowded," United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said in response to the city’s new rules. "Children – particularly the youngest who are most vulnerable to the delta variant – need more protection than the mayor is offering with this recent, ill-considered decision.”

However, Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a health policy professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy, told NYN Media that neither of the city’s new rules are adequate ways of dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, when it comes to students. Lee says that weekly testing has many “potential holes” and shouldn’t be considered a safe alternative to vaccination as students could become “positive after negative COVID test” and “depending on what kind of test you're using, there can be a significantly high false negative rate.”

The public health expert also stated that the new relaxed quarantining rules don’t take into account the fact that many people with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic and it may not become immediately clear if they have been infected with the virus. 

But Lee said that there are greater incentives beyond school safety for finding better solutions. “The rates of severe COVID-19 are lower among kids but we have to remember that protecting kids is not just to protect the kids but it's also to protect the rest of the population,” he said.

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