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New York City Delays School Reopening; Campus Lockdowns Grow

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, shown here last month in Brooklyn, says that he and employees in his office will take furloughs to reduce costs.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, shown here last month in Brooklyn, says that he and employees in his office will take furloughs to reduce costs.

Monday, Sept. 21, was supposed to mark the start of in-person classes for New York City's 1.1 million public school students. It was the only big-city district planning to start the school year in person. But with just four days to go, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced that only the youngest students, in 3-K and Pre-K, and those with significant special needs, would be coming back on Sept. 21. The rest of the students will phase in by grade level between through Oct. 1.

In announcing the changes, the mayor said his decision stemmed from an abundance of caution. "We have got to get it right for our kids," he said. "They lost a lot."

It was the latest in a series of upheavals for parents, educators and students in the nation's largest school district, and the second time the district has announced changes to the start of the school year just a few days in advance. The city's educator's unions have for weeks been raising concerns over the issues of safety and staffing that the mayor cited as the basis for the latest decision.

The latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts the city in the "light green" zone — far ahead of most places around the country. In the past few weeks, 55 teachers have reportedly tested positive for COVID, out of 17,000 tested. That's a very low ratio — lower than the city as a whole.

However, as teachers have started to come back into buildings, complaints have grown about ventilation and lack of protective equipment. Some teachers have been working outside their buildings as a form of protest.

One school in Brooklyn had to shut down because it had two positive cases among teachers.

The other issues are budget and staffing. The City's Independent Budget Office released an estimate that the cost of bringing schools fully in compliance with stated plans would cost $32 million a week. And that over 11,000 new teachers would be needed to cover both in-person and online courses.

Tajh Sutton, a public school parent and an education advocate in Brooklyn, says the problem is a lack of consultation with the various stakeholders.

"In this so-called planning that's happening, we're seeing all these gaps because they didn't include families, they didn't include teachers, they didn't include students."

She doesn't think the announced delay of one week will be enough to address these gaps: "As if that's going to change the material conditions of the schools or magically have the funding we need up here."

New CDC guidelines for opening schools

That "light green" designation for New York was part of new, updated guidancethe CDC released this week to help districts decide when it's safe to reopen school buildings. The guidelines included a clear, color-coded system that rates a district's risk level — from red, the highest risk of transmission, to dark green, the lowest. The colors are based on both the number of community infections, as well as the school's ability to adhere to key mitigation strategies like social distancing, masks and contact tracing.

The guidance, coming as it did in mid-September, is too late to inform most districts' reopening plans. An analysis by Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the school of public health at Brown University, found that 88 percent of people in the U.S. live in counties where the risk is rated either "higher" (orange) or "highest" (red).

Campuses order two-week lockdowns to curb COVID-19 spread

On the higher education front, the rising number of COVID-19 cases on campuses drove a number of universities to impose a two-week quarantine. In Colorado, students at the University of Colorado Boulder were asked by the local health department to onlyleave their homes or dorms for essential needs.

This follows earlier lockdowns like that at Notre Dame University, a school that came out of a two-week quarantine and resumed in-person classes afterwards. Notre Dame reported lower case numbers following the two weeks, suggesting the pause may have been effective. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which mandated a mini-lockdown following higher-than-expected positive cases of coronavirus, also found its numbers decreased, though experts t here said it was too early to tell if the measureswere successful.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.