Elementary school students in New York City streamed back into classrooms with masks, temperature checks and globs of hand sanitizer on Tuesday as the nation's largest school district tries to safely open schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But at the same time, new clusters of Covid-19 in several neighborhoods with large Orthodox Jewish communities are causing alarm among health officials and could quickly cause city schools to close back down.
New York City's daily positivity rate rose to 3.25%, the first time it has gone over 3% in months, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday. The 7-day rolling average positivity rate stands at 1.38%. If that 7-day rate goes over 3%, de Blasio has said that the city will close all schools.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he will be meeting with religious leaders in the Orthodox community along with local officials to discuss the clusters.
"This is a concern for their community -- public health concern for their community -- (and) it's also a public health concern for surrounding communities," he said.
"The cluster today can be community spread tomorrow," Cuomo added.
The possibility of a new outbreak would be a major blow to the city, which has attempted to safely reopen public schools for in-person learning.
After two earlier delays, Tuesday's opening for elementary schools is the second wave of a three-part reopening plan for the city's 1.1 million students and 75,000 teachers. Last week, preschoolers and some children with special needs were allowed back into buildings, and middle and high schools are scheduled to be back for in-person learning on Thursday.
Outside Public School 089 in Queens, Anahi Benitez said she felt comfortable with the safety protocols and was excited to bring her daughter Leah Sophia for her first day of in-person class.
"It is different from last year, but we feel confident that the school is doing everything that they can for kids to stay safe," she told CNN.
The in-person education is limited: A hybrid schedule has students in the classroom only a few days a week, with the rest of their learning online. About 54% of students are participating in that blended model, while 46% opted for fully remote learning, according to the latest preference survey results from NYC's Department of Education.
Still, with the in-person classes, New York has taken a step no other major city has even attempted. The Los Angeles Unified School District and the Chicago Public Schools, the nation's second- and third-largest school systems, both opened remotely.d
Concerns over outbreaks
The plan is not without risks. Already, staffers in at least 150 NYC school buildings have tested positive for Covid-19, according to the Department of Education. The school buildings with employee infections include early education centers which are independent, community-based organizations that partner with the city's education department to provide a free full-day, high quality pre-K, a city official previously told CNN.
"While we continue to navigate the realities of a pandemic, there will be positive cases — we are putting people's health above everything else by quickly identifying and isolating positive cases to prevent further transmission," DOE spokeswoman Miranda Barbot said.
"Beginning in October, all schools will have mandatory monthly random testing to continue to keep transmission low and our communities safe."
Everyone entering NYC schools will have to complete screening, buildings have had their ventilation systems upgraded and they've been reconfigured to allow more social distancing, the city's Department of Education said. There are also protocols for closing classrooms or more areas should anyone test positive for coronavirus.
Despite those assurances, many teachers and school staff have been less than confident in the plan laid out by the mayor and education officials, which was twice delayed at the last-minute.
On Sunday, New York City's principals and school administrators union declared a unanimous vote of no confidence in Mayor Bill de Blasio and the schools chancellor and called for the state education department to intervene.
Parents, too, have expressed their concerns to CNN.
"I am not 100% convinced that the schools are completely, adequately sanitized and ready for children," said Vanessa Nisperos, whose twin 8-year-old sons attend Public School 139 in Brooklyn.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday that the state would provide 200 rapid-testing machines to areas where clusters of the virus have been identified and urged schools to request one if needed.
"We are going to be getting daily testing numbers, so we'll be able to tell on a day-to-day basis what is actually happening with the test in NYC schools both with the teachers and the pupils," he said. "We'll act prudently based on the numbers, but I get the concern of the principals' union and we will be watching the numbers very closely."
Cuomo said the state would take action if it was needed.
"What we're seeing now with this Brooklyn cluster, we have to get to the bottom of that. But the data is key and we'll act on the data."