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Final safety update as schools reopen

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The following email from UFT President Michael Mulgrew was sent to all school-based UFT members on Jan. 2. 

Omicron has had a major impact on our city this holiday, and many of us New Yorkers have already struggled with this variant. We advised the new mayor that it would be safest to allow our school system to go remote temporarily until we could get a handle on the staffing challenges that each school is about to face as we return. However, he feels strongly that schools need to remain open.

We are determined to do everything in our power to keep our school communities safe when schools are open, and our work with the city and the DOE over the break has resulted in more expansive testing protocols and other new safety measures. Here are the final details that we were able to work out now that the new administration has taken office.

Testing in schools

Beginning on Jan. 3, the in-school surveillance testing program will double. Whereas 10% of all unvaccinated students in a school were tested through the end of December, now the number tested will equal 20% of all unvaccinated students, but the testing pool is expanding to include both vaccinated and unvaccinated students.

In addition, at least 10% of school staff who express an interest will be tested each week. School communities should work together to determine a common-sense process for determining who will be tested if more than 10% of staff want to be tested. More than 10% of the staff may be tested if the testing team at the school can accommodate them.

At-home test kits

Some 2 million at-home test kits have been distributed to schools over the break. Each week in January, all school staff will receive an at-home rapid testing kit containing two tests that the FDA has authorized to determine if an individual is infectious. These tests can help minimize transmission by giving quick and accurate results that show when people are infectious.

Kits will also be given to:

  • All staff and students in a class where a positive case is identified. Staff and students in that class will need to take the test two times over the course of five days to monitor for COVID. One test should be taken that first evening and the second test on Day 5. If an exposed individual starts experiencing COVID-like symptoms before Day 5, they should take the second test sooner.
  • Any staff member or student who is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. These individuals should be isolated at school, go home and take a rapid test at home. The first test should be used immediately upon returning home, and the second test should be used 24 hours later. The individual must stay home until they have two negative at-home rapid test results and have been fever-free for 24 hours without fever-reducing medication.

These at-home rapid test kits should only be used at home and are not intended for use at school.

The DOE’s daily health screening has been updated to include questions about at-home rapid test results. These test results will not be uploaded to the screener, but parents, students and staff will have to legally attest to the results in the screening.

When a staff member or student tests positive

Anyone who tests positive from an at-home rapid test should immediately report it to the school and begin isolating. Principals have been told to report any positive results from an at-home rapid test to the Situation Room.

Staff

Staff members who test positive with an at-home rapid test kit should stay home and follow the DOE’s COVID-related absence policies.

School staff who are considered fully vaccinated may return to work on Day 6 after testing positive for COVID-19 under the following conditions:

  • The staff member must be symptom-free:
    • Fever-free for 72 hours without the use of medication
    • No runny nose
    • A minimal cough and cannot be coughing up phlegm
  • At work from Day 6 to Day 10, the staff member must consistently and correctly wear a well-fitting KN95 mask.

Students

Students will be sent home if they are experiencing COVID-like symptoms, including:

  • Fever of 100 degrees F or higher or chills
  • New cough
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Shortness of breath

Students who test positive must quarantine for 10 days from the day of the positive test or the day that symptoms appeared, whichever came first. These students may return to school on Day 11 (a negative test is not required).

In a change in policy, both vaccinated and unvaccinated classmates and other close contacts of students who test positive can continue to attend school if they test negative on a rapid or PCR test and do not have any symptoms. Unvaccinated students who have been exposed outside school to someone who has tested positive must follow the guidance on the DOE health screening questionnaire and not enter the building.

If you are caring for a child or other individual who must quarantine or a child whose school or place of care has closed due to COVID-19, you can stay home on excused leave at two-thirds of your regular rate of pay for up to 12 weeks. If you prefer, you can also use CAR days beyond the three days per year that is typically allowed for taking care of a sick family member.

* *

If your school has a shortage of rapid tests or KN95 masks for staff, please alert your chapter leader, who has a safety hotline to call for rapid response. If your school is not following the new health and safety protocols, you should speak to your chapter leader or contact the UFT at 212‑331‑6311 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Public health experts looking at South Africa and Great Britain have told us that the new variant is not as dangerous as its predecessors and should peak by the end of January. It’s not going to be an easy month, but we will continue to work with our medical experts to closely monitor the situation and we will do everything we can to ensure that our schools are operating safely and effectively.

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