NEW YORK — For the first time, a New York City school has closed — albeit temporarily — due to a positive coronavirus test as teachers and staffers prepare for the start of the upcoming school year, the city education department confirmed Friday afternoon.
P.S. 811 in the Bronx will be closed for at least 24 hours due to two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the past seven days. Education officials did not confirm if the staffers who tested positive were teachers.
In a statement, an education department spokesperson said, “While we continue to navigate the realities of a pandemic, there will be positive cases—we are putting people’s health above everything else by quickly identifying and isolating positive cases, which is a leading effort to prevent transmission.”
Overall, 19 education department staffers across 18 schools in the city have tested positive, according to the department. It’s not clear when these staffers tested positive or contracted COVID-19. The education department said Wednesday that one member of the staff at P.S. 1 and one member of the staff at M.S. 88, both in Brooklyn's School District 15, tested positive. On Thursday, United Federation of Teachers (UFT) President Michael Mulgrew said at least least 16 teachers in 16 different schools have tested positive.
But these schools haven’t met the threshold for closure because they have seen single confirmed cases, education officials said. Officials say everyone who tested positive is isolating, and the city is conducting contact tracing, to try and prevent further spread of the virus.
Mulgrew — who has been vocal in his criticism of the city’s education plan for the upcoming school year, although agreed to the city’s approach to delaying the start of the school year — has sounded the alarm about its ability to keep teachers safe.
"The result comes to us 24 to 48 hours. Test and Trace kick in and all the protocols, they kick into place. They are not able to do that at this point,” Mulgrew said earlier this week. “So again, we have until next Friday, and if next Friday we don't see evidence that's ready to work, then we're going to have a problem opening the schools on the 21.”
Meanwhile, several teachers at M.S. 88 in Park Slope wrote an open letter claiming staff who came in close contact with the infected staffer were not contacted by the city's Test & Trace Corps. They blame the city and state for "inaction and incompetence.”
And in Jackson heights, the UFT tweeted out photos of teachers working outside at I.S. 230, saying there was a reported positive case and there was no same-day test and trace outreach.
.@UFT supporting educators at IS 230 in Jackson Heights. They will work outside until they know it is safe to go back into their school after a reported positive covid case. Results reported but no same day test and trace outreach. Unacceptable. pic.twitter.com/7TqTrYdQfq— UFT (@UFT) September 11, 2020
Teachers started reporting to schools this week to prepare for the start of classes, set for September 16, albeit remotely. Students are scheduled to begin in-person classes September 21, after Mayor Bill de Blasio delayed the start of the school year, originally set for the 10th, after teachers threatened to strike, citing concerns schools would not be ready in time.
The city will shut down classrooms, or even entire schools, if students or staff test positive for COVID-19, but the exact action the city will take in response depends on the situation. The P.S. 811 positive cases, which were confirmed before students report, did not meet benchmarks that would necessitate a longer shutdown.
Overall at schools, if there is one confirmed case, the city will close the student or staff member’s classroom during the investigation and transition to remote learning — and the classroom will remain closed for 14 days, with students and staff in close contact with the positive case self-quarantining for that time. If there are two or more cases within the same classroom, the city will follow the same procedure.
But if there are two or more confirmed cases of coronavirus among children in different classrooms, the city will close the entire building during the investigation, with all children shifting to remote learning. After the investigation, the classrooms of each confirmed case will remain closed and quarantined, and additional school members will be quarantined based on where the exposure was in the school.
If there are two cases in the school that an investigation determines are linked together by circumstances outside of school — such as two siblings or children who carpool together testing positive — the school will also be closed during the investigation, but will reopen after, with just the relevant classrooms remaining closed.
If there are two or more cases not linked to one another but investigators can determine the exposure happened outside of the school, the school will close during the investigation but reopen after, with relevant classrooms staying closed.
And finally, if there are two cases in different classrooms and the city’s can’t determine any link other than attending the same school, the entire school will close during the investigation and remain closed for 14 days after.
Should the city’s infection rate reach a 3 percent, seven-day, average during the fall semester, schools would close and students would resume remote learning full time.
Temporary school closures due to diseases have happened before. In 2009, several schools were shuttered as the H1N1 flu strain spread in the city.
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This story includes reporting from Jillian Jorgensen.