As Nation’s Largest School District Opens for All Grade Levels, Few Coronavirus Cases Emerge


New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio cheered on the final group of public schools to reopen Thursday, even as he said a Queens program for disabled children became the first to shut for two weeks due to cases of the new coronavirus.

Students in hundreds of middle and high schools started in-person classes Thursday, and the system geared up for its first effort at random testing for the new coronavirus.

In the third—and if all goes well—final phase of school reopenings for the nation’s largest district, roughly 1,600 traditional public schools welcomed students Thursday. On Tuesday, about 870 schools reopened for children in elementary grades, including schools serving children in kindergarten through fifth grade and K-8. Preschool and some special-education students returned to school last week.

The mayor has pushed to reopen, making New York one of the few major districts nationwide to offer in-person classes, despite resistance from many teachers and parents concerned that gathering large numbers of people in aging buildings might spread the coronavirus.

The mayor said a program for disabled children at the John F. Kennedy Jr. School in Queens, which has 262 students choosing in-person learning and 88 staff, had to shut for two weeks starting Thursday due to two unrelated cases of coronavirus. About three dozen other schools had temporary closures of classrooms Thursday, according to a district map.

A student had her temperature checked before entering the Bronx Alliance Middle School Thursday in New York.


Bryan Smith/ZUMA Wire

‘‘What our educators and staff proved today is they could get the largest school system in the country up and running,’’ the mayor said. “We’ll keep making those adjustments to make it better literally every week.”

At Park Slope Collegiate, which serves grades six through 12 in Brooklyn, a line of students in face masks snaked around the block to enter Thursday morning, with many filling out health checks using an app on their phones. Some parents showed up to protest metal detectors at the doors, saying they slowed the entrance process and caused some students to bunch together rather than maintain social distancing.

Metal detectors placed in some city schools to find weapons have long caused conflict, with some families saying they add protection and others saying they make students feel like criminals.

A line of students in face masks snaked around the block at Park Slope Collegiate Thursday in Brooklyn.


Emma Tucker/The Wall Street Journal

The machines “actually make the kids less safe by teaching them to distrust each other,” said Joell Baxter, president of the school’s Parent Teacher Association and parent of an 11th-grader.

Samantha Reynolds, mother of another 11th-grader, said the metal detectors were necessary. “Kids get into a fight, they don’t know how to let go, they go from one to a hundred real quick,” she said.

Officials at the school declined to be interviewed and the Department of Education didn’t immediately provide comment.

Some parents showed up to Park Slope Collegiate in Brooklyn on Thursday to protest metal detectors at the doors.


Emma Tucker/The Wall Street Journal

Alexandra Stevens, a 17-year-old senior, said she would be coming to campus two days a week and learning remotely three days. “Online classes have been a failure for black, brown, and working-class kids,” Ms. Stevens said. She added that many of her friends don’t have enough space in their homes to focus, and some have had to take online classes while sitting in their bathrooms.

Kaspar Tapper, a 17-year-old senior attending Millennium Brooklyn High School in the same complex, said he commutes a half-hour by subway. “They have these social-distancing regulations in school, but on the train itself, everyone is so packed together so there is no way to enforce that,” he said.

City officials said coronavirus testing in schools will start next week. They also launched an online map Wednesday showing which school buildings have confirmed cases of Covid-19, and which require either temporary classroom or full-building closures. The online map can be found here.

About half of the district’s 1 million students have chosen to study online full-time, by city data. Many teachers have gotten permission to teach from home because they have medical conditions or live with someone who does.

An Edward R. Murrow High School student attended remotely from Brooklyn, N.Y., Sept. 21.


caitlin ochs/Reuters

The mayor has said schools will close if the share of people tested in New York City who are positive for Covid-19 hits 3% on a seven-day rolling average, and his administration was boosting testing and enforcement of mask wearing and other safety rules in areas seeing spikes.

The daily share of people tested in New York City who were positive for Covid-19 hit 3.25% for the first time since June, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday, just as most public schools began reopening.

Despite the uptick, on Thursday the mayor reported a daily positivity rate of 1.59%, and 1.52% on a seven-day rolling average.

The in-school testing plan is a result of a deal the city negotiated in September with the teachers union to avert a strike vote. As part of a reopening deal with the union, City Hall promised random monthly testing of 10% to 20% of students and staff showing up in person at each school.

In correspondence with families, the city described its virus surveillance program as free, quick and painless.

The city Department of Education asked parents this week to sign consent forms for testing. It said consent isn’t mandatory, but students who don’t have consent forms on file might be required to learn remotely if a school has too few permissions.


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City officials said the test isn’t a long swab, but a short, small one that only goes in the nostril. “We are focused on making this a brief, and gentle experience for our students, led by trained testers,” the department told parents in a letter, adding families will typically get results within 48 to 72 hours.

Testing providers include

Fulgent Genetics,

SOMOS and BioReference Laboratories, the city said. Once a month, a provider will visit a school with a randomly selected list of students and staff to be tested that day. Staff from the school or the testing team will visit classrooms to retrieve students, escort them to a testing area, and then return them to class within 15 or 30 minutes, the city said. Some older students may be able to conduct the test themselves, under supervision.

Parents will be able to log into an online portal to get results, and if their child tests positive, will get a phone call with further instructions. The department said overall results of testing will be shared with the school community but without the names of anyone who tested positive, to protect privacy.

New York City, the nation’s largest school system, delayed the start of the school year and in-person instruction. WSJ talks with one teacher about how her family is approaching tough back-to-school decisions. Photo: Melody Anastasiou

Write to Leslie Brody at and Emma Tucker at

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