By Gabriella Borter
(Reuters) - New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday underlined his commitment to reopening schools for in-person learning next month, a day after the city's teachers' union said his plan was insufficient to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The mayor and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have said that all schools will have a 30-day supply of personal protective equipment at all times and schools will close if the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests in the city is 3% or more on a 7-day average. The city's positive test rate was 0.88% on Thursday.
New York City public schools, which make up the largest school district in the United States, are due to open Sept. 10 for a blend of in-person and remote learning.
"We are going to make sure these schools are safe and ready," de Blasio said on Thursday. "And if we don't think they're safe and ready, they won't reopen."
On Wednesday, New York City teachers threatened to strike or bring legal action unless the city government addresses specific safety demands like a more rigorous COVID-19 testing plan and protocols for isolating students who show symptoms of the virus.
"The minute we feel that the mayor is trying to force people in to a situation that is unsafe ... we go to court, we take a job action," said Michael Mulgrew, president of the union representing the city's 133,000 teachers, adding that a "job action" could include a strike.
The union did not respond to a request for comment on the mayor's plan on Thursday.
Children infected with the novel coronavirus tend to have milder illnesses than adults do, but research has found they can nonetheless have significantly high amounts of the virus in their airways.
Researchers say children may prove to be more contagious spreaders of COVID-19 than previously thought, but that more work is needed to establish this.
The mayor's school reopening plan "encourages" teachers to get tested for COVID-19 every month and promises that the city's testing sites will expedite results for city school staff.
If at least two COVID-19 cases are confirmed in different classrooms at a school, the mayor's plan calls for the school to be closed for 14 days. If one or two linked cases are recorded in the same classroom, then only that classroom must close for 14 days.
Some college students have already begun arriving on campuses ahead of the fall semester, though for some the temptation to mingle is proving hard to resist.
Crowds of unmasked students hanging out on the Penn State campus in central Pennsylvania on Wednesday night vexed Eric Barron, the university's president.
"Last night's behavior is unacceptable," he wrote in a public letter to students threatening to switch wholly to remote learning. "I ask students flaunting the University's health and safety expectations a simple question: Do you want to be the person responsible for sending everyone home?"
The school also suspended a fraternity caught hosting an indoor social gathering against the rules.
Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said it is difficult to reopen schools and campuses if COVID-19 is still spreading fast in the surrounding community.
"First and foremost, our political leaders at the state and federal level need to take steps to reduce transmission overall with the idea that that will enable us to get back to school more safely," she said.
For in-person tuition, rigorous testing and contact-tracing regimens are a minimum, she said. School leaders should expect to see isolated cases emerge; the trick is to make sure they do not snowball into mini-outbreaks.
"You could have one off-campus party that could spark a huge epidemic," she said.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Alistair Bell)