New York City, home to the nation’s largest school system, will eliminate its current policy of quarantining entire classrooms exposed to Covid, and will instead use a ramped-up testing program to allow students who test negative for the coronavirus and do not have symptoms to remain in school.
The new policy, which Mayor Bill de Blasio referred to as “Stay Safe and Stay Open” during his announcement on Tuesday, will take effect on Jan. 3, when the nearly one million students who attend the city’s public schools are scheduled to return from holiday break. More than 27,000 new virus cases were reported in New York City on Tuesday, and more than 2,300 people were hospitalized with Covid-19, according to the state’s most recent count.
Mr. de Blasio, Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor-elect Eric Adams, who takes office on Saturday, appeared together at a news conference to present a united front against school closures, despite an enormous surge in cases driven by the Omicron variant that has only worsened in the days since city schools closed for winter break last week.
“Your children are safer in school, the numbers speak for themselves,” Mr. Adams said.
Instead of delaying the start of in-person school and pivoting to remote learning, the city will double the amount of random surveillance testing it conducts, in hopes of detecting more infections while mitigating disruptions.
Ms. Hochul on Tuesday called remote learning a “failed experiment,” while lauding “the very best efforts of incredibly hardworking, passionate teachers who did their very best with remote teaching and the parents who were just pulling their hair out at kitchen tables, trying to make sure that it worked successfully.”
New York’s new schools policy is the latest example of how the country is trying to respond to the Omicron variant without implementing disruptive and unpopular large-scale shutdowns. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, shortened the amount of time that people who test positive need to isolate from 10 days to five, as long as they are asymptomatic and wear high-quality masks while around others.
Many school districts have sought to limit disruption and prevent outbreaks by increasing testing. That model, known as “test to stay,” was endorsed by the C.D.C. earlier this month. States including Illinois, Kansas, California and Massachusetts have test-to-stay strategies, and the United Kingdom loosened quarantine rules for exposed students earlier this year.
In the Granite School District near Salt Lake City, a significantly smaller school district than New York’s made up of 90 schools and 63,000 students, the test-to-stay program has worked well, according to the district’s spokesman, Ben Horsley, and is now being adopted in Utah statewide.
“You’d be in a situation, you might have 1,800 students in a high school and all 1,800 would be dismissed once the case count reached a certain threshold,” Mr. Horsley said. “As you can imagine, sending everybody home when only 10 to 12 other kids might be sick seemed pretty ridiculous.”
In New York City, hundreds of classrooms were either entirely closed or partially closed last week because of Covid exposures. The city’s previous policy was to quarantine unvaccinated close contacts of infected students for 10 days. Many elementary school children in particular have not been vaccinated, even though they are eligible, and fewer than half of all city children aged 5 to 17 are fully vaccinated.
City officials are expecting Omicron to continue surging in New York over the next few weeks, which will certainly be felt in classrooms. To avoid frequent closures and disruption, the city will provide students with rapid at-home tests to take if someone in their classroom tests positive.
If the students are not showing symptoms and test negative, they will be allowed to return the next day. They will then be given a second at-home test within five days of their exposure. Students or parents will self-report test results to schools.
Students will also receive rapid tests if their classmates or teachers are displaying symptoms. Those who test positive will have to quarantine for 10 days.
New York still plans to close entire schools when there is evidence of major in-school spread.
“Schools remain among the safest settings in our communities,” Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, the city’s health commissioner, said on Tuesday.
He said that even if virus rates continued to rise, “we estimate that in schools about 98 percent of close contacts do not end up developing Covid-19.”
Ms. Hochul said Monday that she would send one million rapid at-home test kits, each containing two tests, to New York City schools, and those are set to arrive this week. In all, the city expects to have roughly six million rapid tests on hand by the time school starts.
Dr. Michael Mina, a former Harvard University epidemiologist, is a leading expert on rapid tests and has been a forceful advocate of using testing to keep classrooms open.
But Dr. Mina, who is now the chief science officer for eMed, which distributes at-home tests, said that testing children twice a week in classrooms where an infection was detected would simply not do enough to dramatically reduce transmission. Instead, he said, those who have been exposed should be tested every day.
By testing just twice, “you’re very likely to miss when someone becomes infectious and potentially becomes a superspreader,” he said. “This virus goes from zero to a hundred easily in a day or maybe two days.”
He considered what would happen if a child tests positive on Monday after having exposed his classmates that day at school. “They get exposed on Monday, test on Tuesday or Wednesday, and then they don’t test on Friday, but they could be an absolute superspreader on Friday,” Dr. Mina said.
Brad Lander, the incoming city comptroller, recently called on the mayor to make rapid tests available to all students and staff before Jan. 3, to help prevent a major outbreak. Mr. de Blasio said Tuesday his team had decided that plan was not feasible, but the city is still encouraging students and staff to try to get tested this weekend.
That could prove difficult for many families, because of the extremely long lines at many testing sites across the city as demand has surged.
The city’s teachers’ union is not yet fully on board with the reopening plan.
“We are moving closer to a safe reopening of school next week. But we are not there yet,” Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, said.
Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, an epidemiology professor at Columbia University, said the city should prioritize getting more young children vaccinated. But the testing plan, she said, “is a sound approach moving forward.”
The number of staff members assigned to the city’s virus-tracing system for schools will be doubled, officials said Tuesday. The system, known as the situation room, was completely overwhelmed with cases during the last week of school before break, with some positive cases never reported to parents or reported days late.
Incoming N.Y.C. Mayor Eric Adams’s New Administration
Police Commissioner: Keechant Sewell. The Nassau County chief of detectives will become New York City’s first female police commissioner, taking over the nation’s largest police force amid a crisis of trust in American policing and a troubling rise in violence.
Commissioner of Correction Department: Louis Molina. The former N.Y.P.D. officer who currently oversees a public safety department in Las Vegas will be tasked with leading the city’s embattled Correction Department and restoring order at the troubled Rikers Island jail complex.
Chief Counsel: Brendan McGuire. After a stint as a partner in a law firm’s white-collar practice, the former federal prosecutor will return to the public sector to advise the mayor on legal matters involving City Hall, the executive staff and administrative matters.
Deputies. Lorraine Grillo will be the top deputy mayor, Meera Joshi will be deputy mayor for operations, Maria Torres-Springer deputy mayor for economic development, Anne Williams-Isom deputy mayor for health and human services and Sheena Wright deputy mayor for strategic operations.
After months of relatively little disruption, more than 400 classrooms were fully closed at the end of last week because of positive cases. Seventeen of the city’s roughly 1,600 schools closed temporarily during the fall semester, with more than half of the closures taking place during its final two weeks.
The school system has been conducting surveillance P.C.R. testing of random groups of students, aimed at catching positive cases before they turn into outbreaks.
But following intense criticism that the city was conducting far too few tests, it plans to ramp up testing from 10 percent of consenting students in each school each week to 20 percent.
In another shift, the city will now test both vaccinated and unvaccinated students under its surveillance program, whereas for months it only tested unvaccinated students. Omicron is extremely contagious, even among vaccinated people.
There is a catch: Only students whose parents have allowed them to be tested are eligible.
Mr. de Blasio said Tuesday that about 330,000 students had consented to testing, about a third of the total school population. He expects that number to increase significantly now that vaccinated children are eligible.
City officials plan to encourage more parents to opt their children into the testing pool, but have rejected calls to require parents to opt out of random testing for their children, rather than actively consent to it.
Children in prekindergarten programs are not eligible for random testing, which has frustrated parents of those students, who are not yet eligible for vaccines.
The mayor said the city “never had a problem getting the number of kids and adults tested we needed to.”
That contradicts the experience of some parents, who have said in interviews that their children were tested nearly every week — even if they were vaccinated — because so few students in a given school had consented to testing.
And while the city has recently begun to offer testing to staff members, all of whom must be vaccinated, many educators have said there are not enough tests for everyone who wants one.
City and state officials have also emphasized in recent days that many more eligible young children in particular need to get vaccinated to keep schools safe amid Omicron. The city sent vaccination trucks to schools when the shots were first authorized for young children this fall.
But now that it’s clear that the new variant is driving breakthrough cases, some parents of vaccinated students said they were concerned about the new semester and that people returning from holiday gatherings would spread the virus.
“I’m just worried because of everyone’s holiday plans,” said Rafael Lena, the parent of a fourth grader in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens. “I’m worried that they’re basically leaving it up to us to determine are we sick or not. We’re just trying to navigate all of this.”
Joseph Goldstein, Dana Rubinstein and Stephanie Saul contributed reporting.