New York City changes admissions at many schools to ease racial segregation

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City is overhauling how it admits students to some of its most competitive public schools to make them less segregated by race and wealth, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Friday.

Some selective Manhattan high schools, particularly in wealthy neighborhoods, are allowed to give children who live nearby priority in admissions, which has tended to put children living in poorer neighborhoods at a disadvantage. These so-called geographic priorities will be ended over the coming two years, making it easier for children from anywhere to apply for a spot, the mayor said at a news conference.

The city will also end “screening” practices at hundreds of middle schools that admit students based on a mixture of grades, test results, attendance rates.

These practices led to disproportionately high admissions of white and Asian students and fewer Black and Latino students in the best-performing schools in the nation’s largest and most diverse education system, which serves some 1.1 million children. Admissions will instead be determined by a random lottery.

“We have been doing this work for seven years to more equitably redistribute resources throughout our school system,” de Blasio told reporters. “I think these changes will improve justice and fairness.”

Although calls to overhaul school admissions long predate the novel coronavirus pandemic, the disruption caused by school closures to stem the spread of COVID-19 was a factor in the overhaul: for example, some state exams were canceled and attendance rates became more difficult to track, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza told reporters.

The New York Civil Liberties Union welcomed the changes but said they should have come sooner, and called for the permanent removal of screening at the high-school level.

“It should not have taken a pandemic to finally remove discriminatory admissions screens for children applying to middle school and to remove the egregious district priorities that concentrate wealth and resources into a few schools,” NYCLU organizer Toni Smith-Thompson said in a statement.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Tom Brown)

To reopen or not to reopen – That is the fraught question for U.S. schools

By Kristina Cooke, Benjamin Lesser and M.B. Pell

(Reuters) – After a two-week deluge of calls and messages from parents – and at least one death threat – the school board in Chandler, Arizona, called a special meeting this fall.

The board would revisit its decision, prompted by the coronavirus, to temporarily close local campuses and offer all classes online.

Parents, teachers and others poured out their thoughts in 1,100 public comments posted online before the September meeting. “If our schools do not open in person I will yank both my boys OUT and take them to another school district!!!” one parent wrote.

Many teachers assailed the district, which serves about 44,000 students near Phoenix, for wavering. “You look weak to the public; you look unconcerned for safety to your employees,” wrote one instructor. Ultimately, the board backtracked, voting 3-2 to start reopening school buildings. Eight-six percent of students returned to campus.

Across the United States, district leaders face pressure from all sides as they grapple with how to educate children during the pandemic, a Reuters survey of 217 districts showed. Many parents are balking at online instruction, seeing it as inferior to classroom learning and disruptive to life at home and work. Other parents worry about sending kids back into classrooms prematurely amid a raging pandemic.

At the same time, many teachers, some backed by powerful unions, say they are not comfortable teaching in person, fearing kids may infect them with a virus generally more dangerous for adults. Union leaders complain of inconsistent COVID-19 testing and safety standards.

Districts are caught in the middle, struggling to accommodate both families and faculty as they juggle the separate challenges of in-class and virtual instruction. Meanwhile, a new wave of infections has arrived, sending caseloads in parts of the United States soaring out of control.

“Every school district across the nation is in the position in which no matter what decision they make and how well thought out it is, it will leave some in the community thinking it’s the wrong decision,” said Larry Rother, senior executive director of pre-kindergarten through 12th grade educational services at Chandler.

Adding to the stress on everyone involved is unpredictability. Plans can change suddenly depending on the vicissitudes of the virus and officials’ tolerance for risk. New York City, with the largest school system in the country, epitomizes the problem. Six weeks after opening schools to optional in-person attendance, the mayor reversed course last week, closing campuses through at least Nov. 30. Parents and caregivers for more than 300,000 students had no choice but to adapt on the fly.

Reuters surveyed 217 districts in 30 states, which serve about 2.4 million students, to determine how jurisdictions large and small are coping with the question of reopening campuses. The broad survey began in late September, and Reuters conducted more detailed reporting through mid-November, focusing on 12 districts serving a combined 1 million students. The New York City school system did not respond to the survey.

Among the findings:

* The vast majority of the districts settled on offering a mix of in-person and remote learning this fall. Five percent said they were remote only and 5% in-person only. Some, like Chandler, changed plans after opening. The Jefferson County School District near Denver, for instance, is temporarily switching most students to all-remote learning this month amid the surge of cases in Colorado.

Most districts that provide in-person instruction require preventive measures such as masks and social distancing. Some have tried a little creativity: In Premont, Texas, a rural community about 70 miles southwest of Corpus Christi, administrators gave the youngest elementary school students Hula Hoops to help them keep their distance from others in hallways.

* Given the option, the districts said most parents want their kids to go back to campus at least part-time. About 70% of parents and guardians chose a learning model that includes some classroom instruction. Several district leaders told Reuters that virtual instruction has led to “learning loss”, or a regression in skills, among some students. But districts said they have to balance that concern against teachers’ desire for safety.

* Adapting to the pandemic has been costly. As of late September, the districts collectively had spent more than $340 million on COVID-related expenses including new laptops and internet hotspots for remote learners, as well as improved building ventilation and extra cleaning supplies for classrooms.

Some districts have been able to cover costs through the federal CARES Act, the initial relief package for COVID-19 passed in March, or supplemental state funding. But many have been forced to raid their regular budgets and reserves, creating the potential for cutbacks later affecting anything from textbook purchases to payroll.

* About half the districts reported problems keeping their schools properly staffed, in part because teachers and other workers on campus must go into quarantine if potentially exposed to COVID-19. In Storm Lake Community School District in rural Iowa, Superintendent Stacey Cole recalled brainstorming in October with an elementary school principal who worried she lacked enough staff to get through the week. As of November 16, the staff was down about 10%, with five positive cases among adults and 30 in quarantine.

In a normal year, staffers report to work even when they have a cold, Cole said. “Now we say, ‘Don’t come in, get a COVID test,’” she said. But it takes as long as eight days to get back test results there, she said – sidelining those staffers in the meantime.

* Only about two-thirds of the 217 districts said they collect data on positive tests among students and staff. Most of those reported few or no COVID-19 cases during the first weeks of the school year. Since then, several, including the Dallas Independent School District, have reported surges, though the numbers there still account for less than 1% of students and employees overall.

The number of reported cases in Arizona’s Chandler district has remained low since students returned to campuses. Fewer than 1% of staff, and half a percent of students, tested positive as of mid-November.

In most instances, it is unclear whether cases originate in schools or somewhere else.

Most children infected with the coronavirus have mild or no symptoms, but kids can spread the virus to others, including adults and other family members, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After members of her soccer team tested positive for coronavirus, 14-year-old Maddie Weiser of the Jefferson County district said she worried she might have passed on the virus unknowingly to others at school, or to her grandmother. “It’s so hard for me to think about it. If this is this stressful for me, it must be 800 times worse for my teachers,” Weiser said.

A study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in four teachers and school staff has conditions putting them at heightened risk for serious illness from COVID-19, though the researchers said that is about the same percentage as in other workplaces.

“Where’s the data that prove that we are not risking our health and safety or even our lives by coming to work every day?” Mamie Huff, who has taught in Dallas elementary schools for 24 years, asked her district’s school board on Oct 22. “This is heartbreaking. Because I love my students. I love my school. I love my job. But what I don’t love is that I have no true control over my own health and safety.”

‘GREAT INTENTIONS’

Michael Hester, superintendent of the Batesville School District in rural Arkansas, captured the feelings of many school administrators during the fall term: “We count it as a blessing to even make it to Friday,” he said.

Hester said one of his greatest frustrations is the shifting rules coming down from the state. For instance, when the school year started in late August, the original plan was for the Arkansas Department of Health to conduct “contact tracing” on any positive coronavirus cases among students and staff on campuses. That means finding and notifying everyone who may have been exposed to the virus by an infected person. But within weeks of reopening, Hester said, that responsibility was largely shifted to the individual districts.

Dr. Joel Tumlison, who focuses on infectious disease outbreaks for the health department, acknowledged that officials had “some problems initially” doing timely contact tracing when schools reopened, requiring districts to assist with the work.

“It’s a big task, we recognize that,” Tumlison said.

Contact tracing is just one example of the challenges districts now confront that fall well outside the realm of traditional schooling. Others are enforcing mask and social distancing requirements and planning around the individual quarantine schedules of infected students and staff.

In the Batesville district, which had about 3,400 students and a cumulative total of 95 cases among adults and kids as of mid-November, some families have had to keep students home for multiple 14-day quarantine periods, Hester said.

Then, in the case of virtual instruction, there is the dreaded problem of “learning loss.” When students in Dallas, Texas, returned to school in September, the district found through testing that there had been a significant deterioration in students’ math skills in the second half of the last school year when all kids were attending online.

“This concerns us significantly,” said Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, who also acknowledged some teachers were “scared to death” to return to campuses. “Math is sequential, you have to have (grasped) the prerequisites before you can learn the next skill.”

Maren Butcher, the mother of a high school sophomore and a third grader at Chandler in Arizona, said remote learning was a disaster for her children. “I watched the spark for school slowly die in my older son. We felt like we were picking him up with a spatula every day.”

After he went back in person, his motivation improved, the classes were more rigorous and he’s “been able to advance more academically,” she said.

In Texas’ rural Louise Independent School District, about a third of the roughly 500 students started the year with remote instruction.

Within weeks Garth Oliver, the district’s superintendent, started to see that students working remotely were struggling to keep up with their peers.

“You call the parents and they say, ‘They have been on the computer all day’ – but they are playing games,” Oliver said.

So on Sept. 22, Oliver sent a letter to district families announcing that the remote instruction would end the following week. “Everybody had great intentions but there is no substitute for face-to-face instruction with a professional educator,” Oliver said.

Only two families left the district afterward, he said.

A JUGGLING ACT

For the nation’s districts and teachers, there is no common playbook.

Districts, for instance, have different thresholds for when to close campuses, based on COVID-19 testing results. In New York City, schools were closed because the city’s positivity rate hit a 3% seven-day average, a standard set by the mayor. Elsewhere, the thresholds are much higher. And some districts don’t have thresholds at all.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national union, said both educators and parents would be more open to having students return to campuses if the federal government provided a well-funded reopening strategy with clear measures of how it’s working.

“That’s the issue, instead of pitting teachers against parents,” said Weingarten, who top Democrats see as a candidate for secretary of education in President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration.

Meanwhile, teachers struggle to adapt to ever-evolving directives that vary by district.

In some places, instructors must handle both face-to-face and online instruction. Some teach the two groups concurrently – juggling, for instance, technology glitches with classroom misconduct. Other districts split up their staff, assigning them to virtual or in-class instruction.

“We’ve been pulling off the impossible, teaching virtual and in-person classes at the exact same time,” Jennifer Lees, a teacher in Dallas, told her school district board on Oct. 22. “We’re exhausted, scared and stressed.”

Staffing shortages and budgetary constraints make matters worse.

After work dried up last spring, many substitute teachers opted to find other employment, said Katie Nash, president of the Chandler Education Association, the Phoenix-area teachers’ union.

To cover COVID-related expenses, many districts received at least some federal CARES Act money, but the White House and congressional leaders have been unable to agree on a new relief package. And most states face budget deficits, limiting their ability to help.

Some districts also confront potentially costly lawsuits from parents of children with special needs, whose individualized education plans often weren’t designed for remote learning.

Another financial challenge comes when dissatisfied parents leave the district. State aid is often based, at least in part, on student attendance, so departures can decrease funding.

“A lot of these districts are hoping the federal government will come through at some point and make them whole,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the AASA The School Superintendents Association. “If that doesn’t happen, a lot of school districts are going to be short.”

THE LOUDEST VOICES

Not all parents or teachers are of one mind about school reopening. But some voices are louder than others.

Even before the summer break began, the Chandler Education Association, the teachers’ union near Phoenix, made its opposition to in-person instruction known to the district.

Nash, the union’s president, armed herself with survey data to show the district that more than half of teachers who responded felt unsafe returning to campuses.

She told Reuters that a small but highly vocal group of parents drowned out instructors’ concerns.

But Chandler parent Butcher, the daughter of a teacher, said she opposed what she saw as the union’s steady pressure on the district to stay remote.

“The loudest voice,” she said, “was not the parents.”

In Grantham, New Hampshire, about 30 parents attended a school board meeting in October to call for a full school campus reopening. The group clapped loudly when people made points in favor of reopening and was “somewhat disrespectful” in its behavior, said Superintendent Sydney Leggett.

She said parents who wanted to stick with strictly virtual or hybrid instruction were not as well-represented at the meeting, held in the school gym, because they were worried about contracting the coronavirus.

After seeing parents argue on social media, she sent a letter to families asking them to be kind to one another. The district decided to open for four days a week, in person, starting in November. It also will continue to offer a remote option.

“I’m hoping when we come out of this we still have a good community feeling,” Leggett said. “It’s going to be work to make sure that this divisiveness doesn’t stick around.”

(Kristina Cooke reported from Los Angeles, Benjamin Lesser and M.B. Pell from New York City. Editing by Julie Marquis and Janet Roberts)

Sewage testing could protect schools, hospitals from COVID-19 outbreaks

By Allison Martell

TORONTO (Reuters) – Early in the pandemic, a few cities and countries around the world began testing sewage for evidence of the coronavirus, hoping to detect rising infections early.

Now some researchers are fine-tuning that strategy by moving upstream to test waste from single hospitals or other buildings, aiming to quickly pinpoint burgeoning COVID-19 outbreaks and stop them with testing and isolation.

While the virus primarily spreads through droplets expelled from the mouth and nose, it can also be shed via human waste.

Testing sewage is cheaper and less invasive than swabbing hundreds of people, and it could be done more frequently. With the virus again surging across much of the world, schools, hospitals and care homes badly need to catch new cases early.

“What we’re trying to do is identify outbreaks before they happen,” said Francis Hassard, a lecturer at Cranfield University, part of a project that started collecting samples at 20 London secondary schools last month.

Hassard’s UK government-funded team will expand sampling to at least 70 schools. The program is a research project, meant to test the approach, and is not yet a full-fledged surveillance system.

In the Canadian province of Alberta, researchers at the University of Calgary have been gathering samples from three local hospitals, including the site of a recent outbreak in which 12 people died.

The team was still refining their methods when that outbreak began. When they went back to test wastewater, they found the amount of coronavirus genetic material rose 580% as the virus spread, said Kevin Frankowski, executive director of Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets.

“We saw a very significant change,” said Frankowski. “It was really strong proof that this … approach works.”

The project shares data with Alberta Health Services, which runs the province’s hospitals. If levels spike again, they could respond by testing individuals or taking other steps to mitigate spread, depending on the situation, said Frankowski.

In the United States, professional services company GHD set up wastewater testing at a handful of university residences, and recently started advertising the service to long-term care homes, drawing significant interest, said Peter Capponi, a principal at GHD.

CLOSE TO THE SOURCE

So far, most sewage testing has been done at treatment plants. Dutch authorities publish a national statistic, based on samples from all over the country, and French authorities have cited similar data for months. The state of Ohio monitors water at treatment plants across the state.

However, it can take 24-to-36 hours for waste to arrive at a treatment plant, and heavy rain or industrial effluent can dilute samples.

When viral levels rise at a treatment plant, it is not always obvious what should be done. But when virus material suddenly appears in sewage leaving a single building, the path forward is more clear.

At the University of Arizona, for example, sewage from one residence turned positive on August 25. The next day, the university began testing students. Two tested positive and were isolated, heading off what could have been an outbreak, the school said in a release.

With most of these efforts in early stages, it is not yet clear how well the approach will work at scale.

Not every infected person sheds virus in their waste, and there is some disagreement among researchers on how early in the course of COVID-19 that shedding begins on average.

Human behavior can affect data collection. Do enough children use the bathroom at school to generate good data? The virus does not show up in urine, just solid waste.

There are also logistical issues.

“Buildings have multiple discharge points,” said GHD’s Capponi. “Some of them are not accessible. Some may show up on a design drawing, but were not constructed that way.”

Outside the controlled environment of a treatment plant, sewage is less uniform. Sampling equipment can get clogged with toilet paper and other debris, said Hassard.

And a single “grab” sample might miss the virus. The UK project collects throughout the school day.

Higher-tech auto-samplers can collect waste over a longer period, but are in increasingly short supply as more testing programs ramp up.

MilliporeSigma, a unit of Germany’s Merck KGaA, makes the Centricon P-70 filter used on some waste samples.

The company has doubled production, a spokeswoman said, after an “unprecedented surge in demand” from governments hoping to test for the virus.

(Reporting by Allison Martell in Toronto; Edilting by Caroline Humer and Bill Berkrot)

India’s coronavirus infections rise to 6.69 million

India’s total coronavirus cases rose by 61,267 in the last 24 hours to 6.69 million on Tuesday morning, data from the health ministry showed.

Deaths from COVID-19 infections rose by 884 to 103,569, the ministry said.

India’s death toll from the novel coronavirus rose past 100,000 on Saturday, only the third country in the world to reach that bleak milestone, after the United States and Brazil, and its epidemic shows no sign of abating.

Last week, India further eased restrictions and permitted states to open schools and movie theatres.

New York governor closes schools in coronavirus ‘hot spots’

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered schools to close beginning on Tuesday in several coronavirus “hot spots” in the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens.

The announcement brings forward a plan by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to close schools in 11 neighborhoods beginning on Wednesday after coronavirus test positivity rates rose above 3% in those areas for seven days in a row.

“I am not going to recommend or allow any New York City family to send their child to a school that I wouldn’t send my child,” Cuomo said at a news conference on Monday.

He said the state would take over enforcement of social distancing rules from local authorities in the hot spots.

Cuomo and de Blasio have repeatedly squabbled over government responses to the spread of COVID-19. Cuomo again chastised the mayor on Monday for what he said was lackluster enforcement of social distancing rules.

The two leaders have not appeared together in public in many months, although Cuomo said he spoke by phone with the mayor earlier on Monday.

De Blasio has defended his efforts.

“I think it goes far beyond the question of enforcement,” he told CNN on Monday in response to Cuomo’s comments. “I think here’s a case where we need to really work deeply with communities, with community leaders, to have a bigger turnaround in the way people are handling things.”

Cuomo said he was also concerned about similar rising coronavirus rates in Rockland and Orange counties north of New York City, and that he may consider closing schools there too.

Many of the affected neighborhoods include large, close-knit Orthodox Jewish communities. Cuomo said he planned to meet with community leaders again on Tuesday to seek their help with getting people to comply with the rules.

New York faced one of the nation’s earliest and most devastating outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in the spring, but has since managed to largely curtail its spread.

On Monday, 1.22% of coronavirus tests statewide were reported to be positive, including those from the hot spots, Cuomo said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Maria Caspani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Berkrot)

No clear link between school opening and COVID surge, study finds

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Widespread reopening of schools after lockdowns and vacations is generally not linked to rising COVID-19 rates, a study of 191 countries has found, but lockdown closures will leave a 2020 “pandemic learning debt” of 300 billion missed school days.

The analysis, by the Zurich-based independent educational foundation Insights for Education, said 84% of those 300 billion days would be lost by children in poorer countries, and warned that 711 million pupils were still out of school.

“It’s been assumed that opening schools will drive infections, and that closing schools will reduce transmission, but the reality is much more complex,” said IfE’s founder and chief executive Randa Grob-Zakhary.

The vast majority – 92% – of countries that are through their first wave of COVID-19 infections have started to reopen school systems, even as some are seeing a second surge.

IfE found that 52 countries that sent students back to school in August and September – including France and Spain – saw infection rates rise during the vacation compared to when they were closed.

In Britain and Hungary, however, infection levels dropped after initial school closures, remained low during the holidays, and began rising after reopening.

Full analysis of these 52 countries found no firm correlation between school status and infections – pointing to a need to consider other factors, IfE said.

“The key now is to learn from those countries that are reopening effectively against a backdrop of rising infections,” Grob-Zakhary said.

The report said 44 countries have kept schools closed.

It found countries are developing strategies for schools during the pandemic – including some, such as Italy, France, which order temporary school closures on a case-by-case basis.

Other measures include policies on masks, class rotations and combining remote with in-school lessons.

“This first real global test highlights what school life looks like in a COVID-world,” said Grob-Zakhary. “Understanding how countries undergoing a massive second wave are dealing with this new reality in the classroom is essential to guide future reopening decisions and to help schools remain open.”

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Giles Elgood)

New York City again delays in-person learning at public schools

NEW YORK (Reuters) – With only four days’ notice, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio delayed the start of in-person learning at public schools for a second time for most students on Thursday as the city grapples to safely reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.

While virtual lessons via the internet are already underway, in-person learning had previously been delayed from Sept. 10 to Monday, Sept. 21, for those students who opted in.

Now, only pre-kindergarten children and students with special learning needs will start on Monday, the mayor said at a news conference. Elementary school students will begin Tuesday, Sept. 29. Middle school and high school students will start Oct. 1.

“This is a huge undertaking,” said de Blasio, who oversees the largest school district in the United States, serving more than 1.1 million children. “It is difficult. It’s challenging.”

Most other major school districts in the United States have scrapped plans to resume in-person learning for now. Efforts in New York City, which in the spring was the U.S. epicenter of the global pandemic, are being closely watched.

The mayor was joined by leaders of teachers’ unions, who had expressed concerns about efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. De Blasio has sought to reassure school staff that ventilation systems are being upgraded, nurses are being hired, protective equipment is being stockpiled and access to testing is being improved.

“If we’re going to do this, we must make sure that we get this right,” Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said at the news conference.

De Blasio said a total of 4,500 additional educators have been hired.

The city had previously agreed with the unions that there would be monthly coronavirus testing of students and staff, with systems in place to send home classrooms or shut down entire schools if new COVID-19 cases are found.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

COVID-19 cases rise in Canada, schools to put pressure on testing system

By Allison Martell and Moira Warburton

TORONTO/VANCOUVER (Reuters) – Canada’s three biggest provinces are seeing a pick-up in new COVID-19 cases, as officials do little to slow the virus beyond urging people to be more careful, and doctors warn school reopenings will boost demand for testing.

The country reported no deaths for one day on Friday, an echo of earlier success in controlling the virus that may already be slipping away, even before the impact of school reopenings is clear.

Demand for tests is already up in some Ontario hot spots, and will rise further as more children return to school. Students with symptoms will generally have to isolate at home until they are well and have a negative test, so any backlogs will trap families at home.

McMaster University infectious disease expert Dr Zain Chagla said assessment centers need to stop testing asymptomatic people who have no known exposure to the virus, before labs become overwhelmed.

Canada’s 5 million school children average about eight upper respiratory tract infections a year, said Chagla. Even if that falls to two this year, some 27,000 will need to be tested on any given day.

Last week, Canada averaged 47,807 tests per day.

“It’s not minor, the actual demands that are going to be put on the system as part of children going back to school,” he said. “It’s going to be paramount that the turnaround time be relatively quick.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he discussed testing with Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland on Monday morning.

“All provinces, not just Ontario, are going to start ramping up for more testing,” he said.

Federal officials have said they are aiming for a “slow burn” of infection.

Dr. Irfan Dhalla, vice president of physician quality at Unity Health, which operates two hospitals in Toronto, has argued that the country should instead try to come as close as possible to eliminating the virus, following New Zealand and Canada’s own Atlantic provinces, with testing, tracing, isolation and support.

“It’s only a matter of time before we start seeing hospitalizations increase, and before we start seeing more people dying again,” said Dhalla.

Infections in Ontario, the most populous province, charged through the 300 mark on Monday, after dropping to below 100 a day in early August with the government blaming the spread on private social gatherings like weddings.

British Columbia, which imposed fresh curbs on nightclubs last week, reported its highest-ever case count of 139 on Sept. 10. Cases are also rising in Quebec, where classes resumed first.

Quebec teachers’ union Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE) filed a lawsuit on Monday, seeking more information about a promised plan to ensure teachers and students have access to accelerated testing, and on the number of COVID-19 cases in schools.

“The government is currently giving the impression that it is improvising, while the virus doesn’t give second chances,” FAE president Sylvain Mallette said in a statement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated his message on Monday, asking people to remain vigilant: “The last thing anyone wants is to go into this fall and lock down, similar to this spring,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Mahad Arale in Toronto, Allison Lampert in Montreal and Steve Scherer in Ottawa; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. to send millions of rapid COVID-19 tests to states to support school reopening, other tasks

By Carl O’Donnell and Vishwadha Chander

(Reuters) – The U.S. government will send an “overwhelming majority” of the rapid COVID-19 tests it purchased from Abbott Laboratories last week to governors of states and territories to support school re-openings and other critical tasks, an administration official said at a press briefing.

Other top priorities for the newly purchased tests include day care centers, first responders, and “critical infrastructure,” said Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The U.S. government purchased 150 million rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 from Abbott in a roughly $750 million deal.

The portable tests can deliver results within 15 minutes and will sell for $5. They require no additional equipment, and can use a less invasive nasal swab than traditional lab tests.

Antigen tests are cheaper and faster than molecular diagnostic tests, but somewhat more likely to fail to identify positive cases of the virus than lab-based diagnostic tests.

U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly pushed for schools to reopen, but most of the country’s largest school districts have said they would start the school year with online classes, as states across the country have battled a spike in cases over the summer.

Girior also said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still supports testing asymptomatic individuals for COVID-19 who are prioritized by local health officials or in high risk populations. Last week, the CDC sparked outcry among many public health officials when it said testing some asymptomatic people may not be necessary.

The U.S. government has conducted 85 million COVID-19 tests so far with a positivity rate of just over 5%, Girior said. The mean turnaround time is 2.27 days.

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell; Editing by Chris Reese and David Gregorio)

New York City schools to delay class start under safety deal with unions

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City public schools, the largest U.S. school system, will delay the start of classes by 11 days to Sept. 21 under an agreement with education unions that had pushed for additional coronavirus safety measures, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday.

Unions, led by the United Federation of Teachers, had expressed concern that the city was rushing into its Sept. 10 scheduled start of the school year without taking adequate steps to protect teachers, students and staff from infections.

But in announcing the agreement, de Blasio was joined by union leaders who said their health and safety concerns had been met.

“What we’ve agreed to is to make sure that the health measures are in place, to make sure there is time for the appropriate preparation for our educators,” de Blasio said at a briefing.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew last month threatened to strike, which would be illegal under state law, unless schools implemented a rigorous COVID-19 testing plan and other safety measures.

Joining de Blasio, however, Mulgrew hailed the agreement.

“Our medical experts have stamped this plan, and we now can say that the New York City public school system has the most aggressive policies and greatest safeguards of any school system in America,” said Mulgrew whose union represents 133,000 teachers and other education workers.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Richard Chang)