New York City has relaxed the rules requiring public schools to close if multiple students test positive for COVID-19, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced at a press conference Thursday. 

Now, schools will close for 10 days if testing shows four or more cases in multiple classrooms within a period of seven days that Test and Trace investigators tie to a known exposure within the school itself. 

Additionally, in cases where there are multiple schools in one building, only the school with the positive COVID-19 tests will close, and not the entire building. 

What You Need To Know

  • The new rules about when city public schools must close due to COVID-19 infections in students make such closures much less likely

  • The rules were designed to limit disruptions for students and families, and will not require schools to close for 24 hours while positive cases are investigated

  • Individual classrooms with one or more positive tests will still be required to go remote for 10 days

The new rule marks a dramatic change from the previous so-called “two-case” rule, which led to more than 2,400 temporary school building closures this year, creating instability and frustration for parents and disrupting the learning and social lives of tens of thousands of students. 

At the same time, the test positivity rate in schools has remained much lower than in the rest of the city. As of this week, de Blasio said, the test positivity rate in public schools was less than one half of one percent, while the city’s rate was about 6.5%. 

“This consistency will do wonders for families, students, teachers and principals,” said schools Chancellor Meisha Porter at the press conference. “We’ve heard the voices of our school communities, calling for increased stability around in-person learning, as long as we can do so safely.” 

The new guidelines still require individual classrooms to go remote for 10 days if one child in that class tests positive for COVID-19. But the school will no longer shut down for 24 hours while investigators determine if there are other infections in the school, a change Porter said she was “shouting a big ‘hooray’ for .”

If two or three students test positive for COVID-19 in multiple classrooms, the Department of Education will double the rate of testing in the school, from 20% to 40%, but only require the affected classrooms to go remote for 10 days. 

Schools will continue to require masks and social distancing. The new rules go into effect starting Monday, pending a final approval from the state, de Blasio said. 

City health officials defended the relaxed school closure rules as sound public health policy, saying that the rules are still stricter than what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend. 

“We will continue to have the most rigorous measures of any public school system in the nation,” said city health commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi. 

Dr. Jay Varma, the mayor’s senior health adviser, said that the new rules were meant to balance protecting against more contagious variants of the coronavirus with the positive health effects of having children learn in person. 

Varma said he is confident that Test and Trace personnel will be able to consistently determine whether students’ exposures come inside or outside of schools, since schools are a more “regulated” environment with a fixed set of people going to specific school buildings.

“We recognize that there are imperfections in this, and that some of this is an art,” Varma said of test-and-trace efforts. “But we also feel like we’ve gained enough experience and knowledge that we can do this in a way that is safe and insure stability.”

The union that represents New York City public school educators, the United Federation of Teachers, insisted on the two-case rule last summer ahead of the schools’ reopening, and continued to support the rule in the face of mounting complaints from parents, saying that it was in line with medical guidance. 

De Blasio said that the new rule was developed in partnership with the unions representing workers in city public schools. 

“We worked with the unions to work through these issues to find an approach that would work for all, adults and children alike,” de Blasio said. 

In an emailed statement, UFT president Michael Mulgrew said that the unions’ medical experts agreed that the rule could be changed, and noted that the overwhelming majority of families continue to opt for remote instruction.

“If we are going to have anything like a normal opening in September, the Mayor needs to find ways to assure them that our COVID precautions remain strong and that schools are safe for their children,” Mulgrew said.