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New York City Schools Reverse Course, Reopen to In-Person Learning

The stunning about-face, which appears to have the blessing of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and union leaders, means children in pre-K and elementary school will return beginning next week 

NEW YORK CITY SCHOOLS will reopen for in-person learning after intense criticism from parents over the systemwide closure triggered by the city's climbing coronavirus infection rates – an increase that was not mirrored in schools, where positivity rates have hovered around 0.2%.

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"It's a new approach because we have so much proof of how safe schools can be, and this has come from real-life experience in the biggest school system in America right there in New York City," Mayor Bill de Blasio said during a Sunday news conference. "We feel confident that we can keep schools safe."

Under the new plan – a stunning about-face that appears to have the blessing of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the city unions that represent teachers and principals – children in pre-K and elementary school will return beginning Dec. 7, and students with disabilities will return Dec. 10. For schools that have the space and staff, students will shift to in-person learning five days a week.

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City and school officials are still hammering out a plan for how students will return to middle and high schools. De Blasio said they expect to finalize those details in the coming days.

Notably, only the approximately 280,000 students who are currently signed up for the city's hybrid model, which had them learning in person two to three days a week and virtually the rest of the time. will be eligible for the new reopening.

In the days leading up to the systemwide closure, de Blasio had been under fire for the city's conservative positivity rate threshold of 3% – the threshold that triggered the closure of in-person learning.

[ READ: New York City to Close Schools ]

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization recommend schools close if positivity rates go above 5%, but with lack of clear guidance at the federal level, states and school districts set their own standards – some comfortable with allowing positivity rates to go upward of 20%. New York state set its threshold for regional closures using a 9% positivity rate, but New York City had established its own, lower threshold.

De Blasio said that when the 3% threshold was originally established in August they didn't have the amount of information and data that they do now. He's yet to weigh in on setting a new positivity rate threshold, and it's likely city officials will base decisions on closures on a case-by-case basis moving forward. In addition, 20% of students and staff will be tested weekly, as opposed to the monthly testing regimen that schools had been using.

"Whatever happens ahead, we want this to be the plan going forward," de Blasio said Sunday. "We know what we didn't know over the summer, we know what works from actual experience."

[ MAP: The Spread of Coronavirus ]

The city's reopening plan is somewhat complicated by an overlapping plan for the state established by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that mandates schools in smaller geographic areas like towns close for in-person learning if they fall into a so-called "orange zone," defined by a 3% positivity rate based on state data of seven-day averages, which are calculated differently than the city's average.

As it stands, only parts of Staten Island fall into orange and red zones. De Blasio said some schools in communities there would likely remain closed for in-person learning.

"We are supportive of a phased reopening of schools in other neighborhoods as long as stringent testing is in place," said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers. "This strategy – properly implemented – will allow us to offer safe in-person instruction to the maximum number of students until we beat the pandemic."

The recent closing of the country's largest school system, which serves more than 1 million students, was a blow to what was becoming one of the biggest – and one of the only – success stories among big-city school districts fighting to safely reopen schools for in-person instruction amid an unrelenting pandemic.

Despite contentious debates between the mayor, union officials and parents over the summer, and several reopening delays, New York City was the only big city to return students back to in-person learning – only a handful of others have since followed.

[ MORE: School Closures Loom as Virus Spikes ]

The difficult and contentious decisions school and city officials are making across the country come amid mounting evidence that while COVID-19 infections can and do occur inside schools, schools are not the main drivers of increased infection rates. The data isn't perfect or as robust as public health officials would like, but that narrative is taking hold with more certainty – though schools appear to be bearing the brunt of the community spikes as some localities allow bars and restaurants to remain open for in-person dining as they also consider shuttering school buildings.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said New York City's school reopening plan "combines the best of what we have learned nationwide during COVID about how to keep staff and students safe and how to instruct young kids."

She was more direct about the shortcomings of the city's hybrid model, which many school districts across the country adopted as part of a reopening strategy.

"What hasn't worked is hybrid learning," she said. "Hybrid is disruptive to parents and educators and kids alike, and simultaneous livestream and in-school learning is an untenable pedagogical practice."


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