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New York City Shutters Schools After COVID-19 Rate Crosses Benchmark

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The nation's largest school district announced today that it will close Nov. 19, after the rate of positive coronavirus test results in New York City cracked a key health benchmark. The decision will return the school system's more than 1 million students to all-remote learning, and it is unclear when they might be permitted to return.

Announced in a letter sent to principals from Superintendent Richard A. Carranza and in a tweet from Mayor Bill de Blasio this afternoon, the shutdown is already facing blistering criticism from some parents who argue that the city's benchmark for closing, set jointly with its teachers' union, is too conservative and should be revised.

"I am a science-driven person and this was not driven by science," said Emily Rubinstein, who holds a degree in epidemiology and has two children in the city schools. "There is no place safer for a child to be than at a desk, wearing a mask, six feet apart. And while I knew the school day looks different, the days my son is in school are magic days. He's learning two languages. He comes home full of understanding. And it's frustrating to me that we would ignore science and not think about how safe it is for the kids in the building."  

The closure comes as a massive blow for de Blasio, who had pushed for months to open the city's schools to some students and had successfully launched a hybrid-learning program this fall, weeks before other large city districts reopened. About a quarter of students were attending some days in person. 

And it's symbolically resonant: Many other districts are also now beginning to pull back from in-person learning in response to rising rates of coronavirus, causing some experts to worry that the rest of the school year could be in jeopardy.

A Long-Debated Threshold For Closing

Mirroring the national trend, New York had seen a rise in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, though they are still far below many Midwestern states, where the virus is currently rampaging. That rise appears to be being driven by community spread linked to the reopening of bars and restaurants, as many commentators have pointed out.

On schools, the city has been much firmer. It set a benchmark for returning if the number of positive COVID-19 tests, averaged over a week, breached 3 percent.

This figure is generally considered conservative; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, considers anything under 5 percent a "lower risk" of transmission in schools. States, districts, and other health organizations have proposed vastly different percentages for returning to all-remote learning. At the beginning of the school year, for example, Arizona recommended 7 percent; the rest of New York is at 9 percent. (Some states leave it up to districts to decide, and many work with local health agencies on their own dashboards and consider new case rates in addition to positivity rates.) 

While epidemiologists don't all agree on precisely where to put the risk thresholds, many argue that schools are generally safe places for children if careful routines for social distancing, mask wearing, and quarantining are put in place. So far, the evidence also suggests that young children do not seem to be transmitting the virus at high rates, and that schools with safety precautions in place are not driving community spread. (For teenagers, the transmission rates approach those of adults.)

The United Federation of Teachers, however, has generally upheld the 3 percent benchmark, arguing that the city should prioritize teachers' and staff members' safety as well as student learning. 

"Now it's the job of all New Yorkers to maintain social distance, wear masks, and take all other steps to substantially lower the infection rate so school buildings can reopen for in-person instruction," the union said in a statement.

Rubinstein, who has been involved in a petition calling on the city to renegotiate the threshold, also believes that the city could use other measures to decide when to close and which schools. It could be testing more children weekly; close some of the city's sub-districts but not others; or consider different policies based on students' grade levels, she said. 

She's sympathetic to the need to be somewhat careful given the city's density. But she also believes the policy needs to be much more nuanced.

"We ride a subway, so there's a reason to be cautious; maybe 5 precent is [the] correct [benchmark] or maybe 9 percent," she said. "But you have to think about all the other pieces that go into this determination of risk." 

Photo: Parents and students demonstrate during a rally Nov. 14 to call on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to keep schools open.—AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

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