Health

NYC public schools have Covid test positivity rate ten times lower than city-wide average

COVID-19 case rates in New York City public schools have remained low this fall despite concerns from parents and school staff about reopening with no remote option as the Delta variant surged.

The overall Covid test positivity rate in NYC schools for the first month of the fall 2021 semester was just 0.22 percent – ten times lower than the rate for the city overall, 2.4 percent during a similar time period.

In all five boroughs, the Covid test positivity rates foe the city’s public schools were at least eight times lower than the positivity rates in the boroughs overall.

Yet experts say that NYC schools should be testing a higher number of students than the current requirement.

Right now, 10 percent of students who opt into testing are swabbed each week – and just over one-third of unvaccinated NYC students have opted in.

But the low test positivity rates in NYC schools indicate that the city’s existing testing program and other safety measures – such as required masks, social distancing, and vaccinations for staff – are helping to keep cases down in schools.

In every NYC borough, the test positivity rate in public schools was eight to ten times lower than the positivity rate in the community overall. The data reflect positivity rates between September 13 and October 15 for schools, and between September 11 and October 9 city-wide

Low test positivity rates thus far suggest that school safety measures are working to identify Covid cases and prevent outbreaks. Pictured: Students are greeted by faculty as they arrive at PS811 in New York City, September 2021

Low test positivity rates thus far suggest that school safety measures are working to identify Covid cases and prevent outbreaks. Pictured: Students are greeted by faculty as they arrive at PS811 in New York City, September 2021

When NYC public schools opened for a new school year on September 13, many parents and educators were worried about the fall semester.

The city was seeing well over 1,000 new cases per day,  and the vast majority of them were caused by the highly contagious Delta variant.

Unlike the previous school year, parents who were nervous about sending their children into classrooms had no remote learning option.

Thousands of children who’d learned remotely in spring 2021 returned to in-person class in September, prompting concerns about overcrowded classrooms where social distancing was difficult.

In addition, the city has scaled down its school Covid testing program.

During the previous spring semester, all in-person students were required to opt into regular Covid testing – 20 percent of students and staff were tested every week.

In fall 2021, students are not required to participate in testing, and just 10 percent of the students who opt in are tested each week.

Yet thus far, case counts in NYC public schools have been low – indicating that the city’s safety measures are working.

Data from the first several weeks of the fall 2021 semester show much lower test positivity rates in schools compared to the city-wide average.

Between September 13 and October 15, 2021, the NYC Department of Education reports that more than 230,000 Covid tests have been conducted, including about 181,000 in students and 52,000 in staff.

Out of these 230,000 tests, just 517 have returned positive results. These include 438 students and 79 staff.

The 517 positive Covid tests indicate that, in the first month of the fall 2021 semester, NYC schools have seen a cumulative test positivity rate of 0.22 percent.

A test positivity rate – calculated by dividing the number of positive tests over the total number of tests conducted – may be a useful indicator of the coronavirus’ prevalence in a community. 

Lower test positivity rates may also indicate that a community is doing enough testing to identify all Covid cases, rather than missing some cases in individuals who don’t show symptoms or don’t have access to a Covid test.

Test positivity rates in NYC range by ZIP code, from under 1% (light red) to 4.1% (dark red). The overall test positivity rate in NYC schools - for the first month of fall 2021 - is just 0.22%

Test positivity rates in NYC range by ZIP code, from under 1% (light red) to 4.1% (dark red). The overall test positivity rate in NYC schools – for the first month of fall 2021 – is just 0.22%

The NYC schools test positivity rate is about ten times lower than the test positivity rate citywide – which is about 2.4 percent – during a similar time period, September 11 to October 9.

This pattern holds true across all five boroughs.

In the Bronx, the cumulative test positivity rate in schools is 0.23 percent – compared to 2.4 percent for the borough overall.

Brooklyn has a test positivity rate of 0.25 percent in schools, compared to 2.7 percent overall.

Queens has the lowest test positivity rate in schools – 0.17 percent. The borough overall has a test positivity rate of 2.8 percent.

In Manhattan, the test positivity rate in schools is 0.21 percent, compared to 1.7 percent for the borough overall.

Staten Island has the highest overall test positivity rate of the five boroughs, at 3.4 percent. The test positivity rate in Staten Island schools is much lower, at 0.32 percent.

‘Our public schools have proven to be some of the safest places to be in New York City during this pandemic, due to our multilayered approach to safety,’ Nathaniel Styer, a spokesman for the NYC Department of Education, told the New York Times.

Experts say that NYC schools should be testing more students, including those who are vaccinated. Pictured: Mayor Bill de Blasio touches elbows with a student during a school visit in Brooklyn, New York, March 2021

Experts say that NYC schools should be testing more students, including those who are vaccinated. Pictured: Mayor Bill de Blasio touches elbows with a student during a school visit in Brooklyn, New York, March 2021

Still, experts say that the city schools should be testing more students.

In the fall 2021 semester, unlike the previous school year, students are not required to sign up for the city’s school Covid testing program in order to attend school in person.

About 200,000 students have enrolled in the testing program as of October 19, according to The Times.

These students make up just over one-third of the 550,000 unvaccinated students in the NYC school system.

The Times also reported that, out of NYC’s 1,600 schools, about 300 are failing to meet the city’s current benchmark – testing 10 percent of their students each week.

Dr Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told The Times that the city schools should test a higher number of students – not just those whose families are eager to sign up for the program.

‘You want to test enough students so that you find them when they’re infected and you can pull them out before they go around infecting others,’ Jha said.

NYC public schools have Covid test positivity rate ten times lower than city-wide average

NYC public schools have Covid test positivity rate ten times lower than city-wide average

Jha also told Rhe Times: ‘If you’re going to do opt-in, I worry a lot about whether schools are going to do the hard work of really trying to explain the benefits and value to all parents.

‘You may see in certain communities less opting in because people may not have as much trust in what the purpose of these tests are.

‘And what I would not want is a system where you’re essentially testing kids whose parents are wealthier and more educated, and getting a skewed view of what is happening.’

Other experts say that it’s important to test vaccinated students and staff as well as unvaccinated students in order to identify potential breakthrough infections, The Times reported.

Currently, NYC public school staff are not required to get tested, as city mandates stipulate that staff must be vaccinated.

Still, Jha told the Times that he was impressed by the low test positivity numbers thus far ‘as long as infection numbers are low, you can’t really argue with success.’

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