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Short-staffed NYC schools are asking teachers with mild COVID symptoms to return to the classroom

miljko/Getty Imagges

  • In NYC, COVID-positive teachers who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms will return to classrooms after 5 days.
  • Teachers who fit the bill will not have to test negative before heading back.
  • At least 96% of teachers abided by NYC’s August mandate to one vaccine shot before the start of school.

As students return to school amid a record-breaking spike of COVID-19 cases in New York City, some might be taught by teachers who tested positive just five days earlier.

The latest protocols now say that teachers and school-based staff who have tested positive but are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms can return after five days instead of 10, according to an email from the Department of Education to teachers, which was viewed by Insider. The DOE did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

The new protocol stems from guidance issued by the state that says essential workers can return after five days of isolation when there are “critical” staffing shortages, and applies to fully vaccinated people who have had two shots of the mNRA vaccine or one shot of J&J at least two weeks prior to their positive test. In August, former mayor Bill de Blasio mandated that all teachers get at least one shot by the start of school, which 96% of teachers did.

It’s the latest group of workers to be told to return to the workplace after contracting COVID-19 — and another situation that illustrates the new pandemic workplace normal as some essential workers might head back earlier than their peers. The new protocol says that non-school based staff should still quarantine for 10 days.

“Like every school is in a staffing crisis right now, because of the number of people that are sick, or taking care of sick family members,” Liat Olenick, an elementary school teacher, told Insider. “There’s a lot of pressure on teachers to return after five days, which I really don’t believe is safe.”

For teachers who test positive, symptoms that would allow them to return include a “minimal cough” — they can’t be “coughing up phlegm” — and symptoms have to be mild or improving. Teachers will have to distance themselves if they take off their “well-fitting higher-level face covering” to eat or drink. They also must “must continue to stay at home outside of work” and “observe” other elements of isolation until 10 days pass.

They will not need a negative test to return to school. 

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers said that its current guidance is “the staff member must be symptom-free,” and that anyone who still feels ill should not come to school.

The new protocols come after the CDC slashed the isolation time for asymptomatic individuals from 10 to five days, with those people wearing a mask for the next five days. The move sparked some backlash and a myriad of memes. 

“Many people are no longer contagious five days after diagnosis. And those who are can minimize their risk of infecting others by wearing a mask,” Dr. Celine Gounder, a leading infectious disease doctor in the US, told Insider. “That means that they need to wear that mask diligently for an additional five days when around other people. But in that context, they are very unlikely to infect others.”

Pairing the five-day guidelines with a negative test might also prove helpful, according to Goucher. Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that the CDC might recommend that asymptomatic individuals end their isolation after five days if they test negative.

Mikhaela Reid is a Brooklyn-based working mother of two. In February 2021, her whole family got COVID before vaccines were widely available: “I’ve never been so sick in my life.”

After that “terrifying” experience, Reid’s children returned to in-person schooling, which they love. But with the rise of Omicron, “I had never heard of so many parents or friends whose kids were sick.” Reid was already concerned about sending her kids back to school after winter break. Then she saw the new health screening form that goes out to both staff and students, which asks if they’ve tested positive in the past 10 days. One option lets staff members indicate that they’re returning after five days of isolation with no or mild symptoms — something Reid said was buried in “small print.”

“These are kids. These are vulnerable children,” Reid said. “Yes, they need school, but they need to be healthy and safe. School needs to be a safe environment.”

Are you a New York City teacher or parent with a story to share? Contact this reporter at jkaplan@insider.com

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