Mar 23 2021

New York City Public Schools: Supporting School Reopening With a Focus on Testing and Tracing

Since March 2020, New York City (NYC) has transitioned from becoming a pandemic hot spot to becoming the first large U.S. city to reopen all of its schools. This profile describes how the NYC Department of Education (NYCDOE) managed the school opening process, including how the department was able to bring students back by implementing multilayered mitigation strategies, which have included significant investments in testing and tracing capabilities. Drawing from the department’s documents and websites, as well as media coverage, we describe how NYC public schools organized and accomplished this work. Where applicable, we provide links to resources that may be useful for policymakers and educators navigating their own school reopening plans.

The COVID-19 Context in New York City

On March 15, 2020, as students were sent home, department officials began rapidly training teachers on remote learning models to prepare for the closure of all school buildings by March 23. Several dozen buildings were left open as “learning centers” to support the children of health care employees and other essential workers. Though there was an optimistic reopening date set for April 20, city officials later acknowledged that they would not be able to reopen before summer break. Instead, New York became the nation’s COVID-19 epicenter during March and April; by March 22, it accounted for 5% of all cases in the world. But scientists credit a spring and summer of community-wide lockdowns, combined with mandated mask wearing, with the city’s ability to bring the outbreak under control.

After bringing and keeping COVID-19 cases down during the spring and summer, New York opened its schools in fall 2020 amid low community transmission rates. As the nation’s largest district, NYC schools became a national test case as to whether reopening could be done safely. Planning for reopening began in earnest over the summer, when union, district, and city hall officials began meeting weekly in three groups organized around policy, learning, and health and safety. As a result of this extensive cooperation between NYCDOE and the teachers union, all parties reached a negotiated agreement to reopen schools in September 2020, averting a potential strike. Following these negotiations, the president of the union, Michael Mulgrew, stated, “We now can say that New York City’s public school system has the most aggressive policies and greatest safeguards of any school system in the U.S.”

The union worked in partnership with NYCDOE to complete workplace risk assessments to protect educators during in-person instruction. Educators with preexisting health conditions were allowed to serve as remote-only teachers. The original September 8, 2020, opening was twice delayed because of insufficient staff (24% of teachers were granted permission to work remotely for medical reasons) and more time needed for health and safety checks of issues such as airflow. Staff and union representatives used a checklist to walk through every building and generate a database of deficiencies. After consulting with ventilation experts, health and safety workers from the United Federation of Teachers identified 30 schools with indoor air quality problems, which were reported to and addressed by the Division of School Facilities.

A phased reopening began in earnest on September 21, 2020. This multiweek process included an additional nine professional learning days to ease the transition. During this time, the department and the union worked together to ensure that every school had a robust Building Response Team (BRT), consisting of multiple stakeholders with processes for assessing incidents and complaints related to health and safety. BRTs remain in effect today and operate as the command centers for every school.

When schools completed the reopening process on October 1, 2020, 500,000 students chose to return for at least 1 or 2 days of in-person instruction via hybrid instructional models. The remaining 480,000 students opted for entirely remote learning. White students from more affluent families have been more likely to return, a pattern that has repeated itself in other large cities such as Chicago.

Families of color and less affluent families have been less likely to return their children to in-person learning for many reasons, including the disproportionately harmful impact of COVID-19 in their communities. Households in communities of color are more likely to include essential frontline workers as well as multiple generations living together, increasing the likelihood of viral exposures and household spread among family members. Some Asian families may have had their own prior experiences with deadly pandemics in their countries of origin, and there has been deep-seated mistrust of NYCDOE and government in general among Black families because of past failures to protect the health and safety of their children.

NYCDOE sought to address these concerns using data, testing, and ongoing communication with families. NYC was one of the first in the nation to conduct random surveillance testing of asymptomatic staff and students—several months before most other districts were able to implement such a program. In the first three weeks of school, only 18 students and 20 staff members tested positive out of the 16,348 staff and students who participated in random surveillance testing (a 0.2% positivity rate). However, as another COVID-19 wave began across the nation in late fall 2020, schools closed on November 19, 2020, in accordance with the negotiated agreement, when community spread in the city reached a 3% positivity rate. While 1,832 cases were reported in NYC on the date of closure, there was only a 0.2% positivity rate in schools, according to ongoing surveillance testing.

Schools reopened not long after the Thanksgiving break, when the city removed its 3% citywide positivity rate threshold for school closure and adopted state-recommended policies instead. These policies, known as the Micro-Cluster Strategy, originated from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order No. 202.68. This new approach aimed to avoid the large-scale shutdowns that marked the spring and early summer months by adopting a more targeted approach. However, as of March 22, 2021, only about a third (300,000) of all city students are choosing in-person instruction.

Implementation of New York State’s Targeted Micro-Cluster Strategy

The state’s Micro-Cluster Strategy subdivides the city’s boroughs into smaller regions and specifies restrictions based on local positivity rates and hospital capacity. Yellow zones indicate an area having reached the earlier NYC benchmark—a 3% positivity rate. Orange zones have a 4% positivity rate in addition to having reached 85% hospital capacity. Red zones indicate that an area has canceled elective medical procedures and is 21 days away from reaching 90% hospital capacity on the current 7-day growth trend.

These zones—yellow, orange, or red—determine restrictions within that cluster and specify testing requirements that schools in each zone must meet in order to remain open. Schools in red zones can remain open as long as there is mandatory monthly surveillance testing of a random 30% of in-person students and faculty (see Table 1). As for wider community mitigation measures, Governor Cuomo removed red and orange micro-cluster restrictions statewide on January 27, 2021, because of a decline in new cases and hospitalization rates. As of that date, areas in the Bronx, Queens, and Washington Heights remained in yellow status, but there were no red or orange clusters remaining across the state of New York.

Under the Micro-Cluster Strategy, NYCDOE began reopening schools again in phases. Preschoolers and students up to 5th grade returned to classrooms on December 7, 2020, with special education students returning on December 10, 2020. To return, these students had to consent to random surveillance testing and symptom screening, with one exception made for schools that serve students with significant disabilities. These schools were not required to symptom screen if students were incapable of responding to survey questions. Eighty percent of students with significant disabilities across all grades have now returned to in-person instruction. In the middle school grades, 62,000 students who opted for in-person instruction returned on February 25, 2021. High school students returned on March 22, with half of high schools offering hybrid instruction and the other half offering full-time in-person instruction for most or all of their students.

a Yellow zones have more frequent testing because they can stop surveillance testing after 1 week, whereas orange and red zones must continue as long as they remain in orange or red status.
b Minimum case numbers (6 or 9) reflect a minimum weekly sample size of 300.
Source: New York State guidance for school testing in red and orange zones and yellow zones.

Throughout this process, the department has regularly updated its data dashboard to inform the public and to guide temporary school and classroom closures. As of March 8, 2021, NYCDOE had reported 17,559 cumulative cases of COVID-19 (9,131 staff and 8,428 students) since September 14, 2020, representing 6% of staff and 1% of students; the dashboard does not disaggregate which of these cases are a result of transmission within schools. However, as of March 8, the citywide test positivity rate was 7% compared to a 0.57% positivity rate in schools. The city’s rate reflects those who have actively sought out testing, whereas the school district has continued to conduct random surveillance testing.

On March 8, 2021, 61 (3.8%) of the department’s 1,606 buildings were closed for 10 days, triggered by having at least two confirmed cases in two different classrooms. Short-term 24-hour building closures, triggered by having two cases detected for which the source of transmission could not be determined, were implemented in 25 buildings (1.6%); 111 individual classrooms were also temporarily remote on this date because of at least one case, though building-wide closures were avoided.

The Micro-Cluster Strategy, coupled with surveillance testing, targeted closures, and strict mitigation measures, has enabled NYCDOE to offer in-person instruction even as community transmission and positivity rates have waxed and waned. Within-school positivity rates in boroughs that have been hardest hit, such as the Bronx and Staten Island, have consistently remained below 1% according to school surveillance testing. The department has conducted millions of tests since widespread surveillance testing began on October 9, 2020, and it continues to conduct over 7,500 tests per day to monitor student and staff health.

Surveillance Testing and Partnering With Public Health and Labor Partners Officials

To reduce the risk of in-school transmission and to meet the state’s requirements for testing in schools, the department’s reopening plan integrates support from the NYC Test & Trace Corps, a citywide initiative that operates in partnership with NYCDOE and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The Corps is a group of physicians, public health professionals, and community advocates working to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. On July 27, 2020, Mayor de Blasio announced $7.8 million in funding for their efforts. The Corps allows the city to isolate and care for those who test positive for the virus and to track, assess, and quarantine infected individuals.

This investment and coordination allow contact tracers from the Corps to identify cases of student-to-student, staff-to-staff, student-to-staff, and staff-to-student transmission. The Corps communicates this information to department officials to inform whether schools need to be temporarily closed. With a 90% goal for contact tracing, Corps members successfully contacted 75% of cases during a reporting period from January 17 to January 30, 2021. Once contacted, students and staff remain at home in quarantine as advised. The Corps also operates a hotel placement program, where individuals can safely quarantine away from their loved ones; it has served over 8,000 people since June 2020. The Corps also provides daily updates on COVID-19 testing wait times at locations throughout the city. As for within-school surveillance testing, health care workers from either the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or the Corps visit schools each week to test a random sample of students in grades 1 and higher.

Trust and communication among department officials, families, and educators is essential to keeping school buildings open. NYC offers lessons in how well-funded, carefully designed, and rigorously implemented mitigation strategies can help build confidence in the safety of in-person instruction.

New York City Public Schools: Supporting School Reopening With a Focus on Testing and Tracing (research brief) by Adam K. Edgerton, Naomi Ondrasek, Natalie Truong, and Desiree O'Neal  is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This work was supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Heising-Simons Foundation, and Silver Giving Foundation. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, and Sandler Foundation.