As the new mayor takes office, New York City and the NYC schools face the same Covid-19 issues in 2022 that they faced in 2021 and through most of 2020, this time because of the Omicron variant. Will in-person learning have to close again? Can students be safe if it continues? 

NYC schools make up the largest school system in the United States, with nearly one million students. On Dec. 28, Mayor de Blasio announced a policy he called “Stay Safe and Stay Open,” scheduled to take effect on Jan. 3, as the schools reopen after the holiday break. 

De Blasio appeared at a news conference Tuesday with Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor-elect Eric Adams, (who takes office Saturday) in order to present a united front, saying “no” on closings and “yes” on safety.

The plan turns on a ramping up of the system of testing within the NYC schools. Students who are asymptomatic and who test negative will continue to receive in-person education. The city will double the numbes of random surveillance tests, which it expects will catch more infections and allow the mitigation of disruptions. It will also make in-home testing readily available.

1 to 5 Million Tests a Day

Can the necessary tests be secured? Dr. Michael Mina, a former Harvard epidemiologist employed by eMed, a company that verifies the results of rapid at-home tests, says that they can be, if the city moves expeditiously.

“It’s not a big task to get that many tests, these companies are making anywhere from one to five million tests a day,” Mina said. “If New York City wanted to purchase them, they could totally do that, and it would be worthwhile.”

Also on Tuesday, the day of this conference, more than 27,000 new virus cases were reported in New York City. The count of patients newly hospitalized with Covid-19 was 2,300. Those raw numbers indicate the size of the problem the NYC schools face now. 

The Mayor-elect, seeking to alleviate natural parental concerns, addressed the parents of children in NYC schools, “Your children are safer in school, the numbers speak for themselves.” 

The city’s health commissioner, Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, also at the conference, said much the same: “Schools remain among the safest settings in our communities.” 

Adams also indicated that he believes it should not be NYC schools merely, but the city as well, that is reopening. “It’s time for us to realize that this is a resilient city and a resilient country. We must reopen our city and we can do that,” he said.  The NYC schools closed in the face of the first shock of Covid-19 in the spring semester 2020. The whole system had gone to remote learning by March 23d. The schools re-opened that fall.

The NYC schools are now abandoning a policy of quarantining the unvaccinated close contacts of infected students for 10 days. That policy was deemed impractical, in part since many elementary school children have not been vaccinated. Less than half of all NYC children between the ages of 5 and 17 have been fully vaccinated.

But students will receive rapid tests when their classmates or teachers have displayed symptoms. Those who test positive will then be quarantined for 10 days. There is still the option of the closure of entire schools where there is evidence of extensive in-school spread. 

Not the Last Word

The policies announced Tuesday are unlikely to be the last word on the subject of Omicron and NYC schools. The New York Times says that Mayor-elect Adams and the incoming schools chancellor, David C. Banks, are “weighing a variety of options.”

Thus far this school year, 17 schools were temporarily closed due to confirmed Covid-19 cases. Rising cases in schools have caused more disruption during the omicron surge of recent days than they ever did during the reign of Delta or the original Covid-19 strain before that.