Roughly a million children in New York City are set to return to classrooms on Monday — most of them for the first time since the United States’ largest school system closed in March 2020.
While the city reopened schools last fall for part-time learning, the vast majority of students chose to keep learning remotely. But with no remote option now available to almost all parents, classrooms will be full for the first time in a year and a half.
For months, Mayor Bill de Blasio has forecast the first day of school to be a triumphant coda in New York City’s long recovery from the pandemic.
“This is going to be one of those game-changer days, one of those days we remember when we turn the corner on Covid,” the mayor said during a news conference last week.
But the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant has complicated the city’s push to fully reopen schools and left many families and educators anxious about what the next few months will hold.
In May, amid a brisk vaccine rollout and rapidly declining virus case counts, Mr. de Blasio announced that the city would no longer offer remote instruction to most students. (A few thousand children whom the city considers medically vulnerable will still be able to learn from home.) His announcement triggered little political resistance in the spring, but his administration has faced growing pressure from parents and politicians to reconsider.
About 600,000 families, most of them Black and Latino, kept their children learning from home last year. This year, while parents are much more receptive to reopening schools, some say they would like to wait at least until their young children are eligible for the vaccine. Only children 12 and older are currently eligible, and younger children may not be until later in the year, at the earliest.
The mayor has remained resolute that the school year will proceed normally, albeit with safety measures in place. But it is still possible that significant in-school transmission this fall could force many school buildings — or even the entire system — to shut down temporarily.
City schools saw remarkably low virus transmission in their buildings last year, but most schools were at significantly reduced capacity. Even with a transmission rate of 0.03 percent as of the end of last year, quarantines were still a regular occurrence.
This year, at least some level of disruption is inevitable.
Mr. de Blasio has acknowledged that he does not expect all children to actually return to school this week, since some parents have informed their principals that they want to wait a few days or even weeks to see how reopening goes.
A similar situation has already played out in Dallas, where some parents kept their children home for the start of school. Since then, students there have started to return to classrooms in higher numbers.
But Meisha Porter, the schools chancellor, said last week that the Administration for Children’s Services could get involved if families refuse to send their children back after several weeks.
The city’s newly announced quarantine policy will almost certainly lead to frequent short-term classroom closures.
In elementary schools, where children are still too young to be vaccinated, one positive case in a classroom will prompt a 10-day quarantine, and a switch to remote learning, for that entire classroom.
In middle and high schools, only unvaccinated students will have to quarantine if exposed to someone with the virus, meaning that unvaccinated students could have a much different school year than their vaccinated classmates. Over 60 percent of New York City children eligible for the vaccine have received at least one dose, but the city does not know how many of those children attend its public schools.
While the city’s quarantine protocol is more conservative than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, New York’s school testing plan is more modest than the C.D.C. calls for, alarming some parents and public health experts.
A random sample of 10 percent of unvaccinated students will be tested in each school every other week; the city was testing 20 percent of people in all school buildings weekly by the end of last year. Experts have said that the city’s current testing plan will almost certainly be too small in scope to stop many outbreaks before they start.
New York has gone further than most districts in the country by implementing a full vaccine mandate for all its educators, along with all adults who work in school buildings. The mayor has said he believes that the mandate, along with increasing vaccination rates for eligible students, will help keep schools as safe this year as they were last year.
China has logged its highest number of coronavirus cases in nearly a month, prompting one county to shut down public transportation and test hundreds of thousands of people.
On Sunday, the Chinese authorities reported 22 new locally transmitted infections, all in the southern province of Fujian and caused by the Delta variant. The number was the highest since Aug. 14, when 24 cases were recorded.
The outbreak over the weekend bucked a downward trend of cases, which had fallen for more than a month since Aug. 9, when China reported 109 infections. While Sunday’s case count is far below many other countries, the number reflects what health experts have long warned: that it is probably nearly impossible to completely eradicate the Delta variant, and that Beijing needs to rethink its zero-Covid strategy.
The government said that the outbreak started on Sept. 10 in a primary school in Xianyou, a county in Fujian. An initial analysis showed that the infections had been imported by an adult who had returned from Singapore.
The authorities in Fujian have ordered mass testing of all students and teachers to be completed within a week. The city of Xiamen has closed off two districts and a hospital after identifying coronavirus patients. In Xianyou, buses and taxi services have been suspended. More than 900,000 residents in the county have been called up for testing, with threats of criminal punishment for anyone who does not cooperate.
The local authorities said that most of the infected were young children.
A team from the National Health Commission that has been sent to Fujian said that it would probably detect more cases, but added that the outbreak could be controlled before the weeklong National Day holiday, according to CCTV, the state broadcaster.
Beijing is likely to be nervous about the approaching holidays, a time when Chinese people travel and gather, which could heighten the risk of infection. The three-day Mid-Autumn Festival starts this month, and the National Day “golden week” holiday starts the first week of October.
Last month, China stamped out multiple Delta outbreaks that swept across half the country through mass testing, contact tracing, and targeted lockdowns. But health experts have warned that the measures come at a punishing economic and social cost and may exacerbate weariness among the public.
Australia has opened up Covid-19 vaccinations to children as young as 12 as it races to inoculate the population amid an outbreak of the Delta variant.
Children ages 12 to 15 started receiving Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines on Monday. Appointments for the Moderna vaccine can be booked now for sessions starting next week.
Australia’s vaccine campaign is gaining speed after a sluggish first few months. Millions of doses that were ordered earlier this year are arriving, and the country will have enough supply by mid-October to vaccinate every eligible person, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week.
Currently, 55 percent of the population of 26 million has had at least one vaccine dose, and 34 percent are fully inoculated, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. The number of new cases increased by 36 percent over the past two weeks to 1,493 cases, based on the seven-day average.
Australia will also receive its first shipments of the Moderna vaccine this week, with 11 million total doses expected to be delivered by the end of the year. The government also signed an agreement with other nations to swap vaccines, which will allow it to get 500,000 doses of the Pfizer shot from Singapore and four million from Britain. In return, Australia promised to ship the same numbers of doses to the two countries later this year.
Fully vaccinated people living in Sydney, the epicenter of the Delta outbreak in Australia, had some restrictions eased on Monday. Those who live outside 12 government areas “of concern” are now allowed to have outdoor picnics with up to four other people.
Schools in Sydney will reopen on Oct. 25, while pubs and gyms are expected to open in mid-October when the state fully vaccinates 70 percent of its population.
Daily reports of new coronavirus cases grew tenfold in South Dakota in August, with the worst outbreaks concentrated in the western part of the state. Hospitalizations have increased swiftly in the last few weeks. National Guard soldiers were dispatched to aid with testing.
The increase came during and after the state’s annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which drew more than 550,000 people from all over the country to South Dakota — even more than last year’s, which forged ahead while most large events were canceled. This year’s happened during a broad spread of the Delta variant that drove a spike in all 50 states.
Uncertain, experts said, was the role the rally may have had in spreading the virus in South Dakota. And unanswered was a larger question: How safe are major gatherings held at least partly outdoors — events like Sturgis, Lollapalooza and college football games.
Cases in Meade County, which includes Sturgis, began to rise in mid-August, just as the motorcycle rally was winding down. By the end of August, more than 30 county residents were testing positive most days, up from about one a day before the rally. Case levels have since started to decline.
But the vast majority of people at the rally came from elsewhere and, if they became infected, would be counted in the data in their home states.
As the Delta variant spreads widely, and as Americans yearn to go back to normal, health experts have debated the public health risks of large outdoor events and music festivals.
Outdoor events are far safer than those held in indoor, poorly ventilated spaces. But even gatherings where the main event is outside can include indoor opportunities for Covid to spread.
Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, said it may be too early to link the Delta variant surge that’s overwhelming hospitals and increasing case level to large outdoor events, including the rally in Sturgis.
“I haven’t seen any data so far that says outdoor gatherings themselves are pretty risky,” said Dr. Jha. “And what I’ve said about Sturgis is, I don’t think it was the rally itself, I think it was all the bars and restaurants and all the stuff and night and evenings and all the indoor stuff.”
Dr. Shankar Kurra, the vice president for medical affairs at Monument Health, which is headquartered in Rapid City, S.D., said last month that the number of coronavirus cases in the area was much higher than at this time than they were following last year’s rally.
“It’s hard not to say these cases didn’t come from the rally,” Dr. Kurra. “The cases had to come from somewhere and we know these cases did not come from here.”
Local officials in Sturgis have pushed back against the scrutiny of the event, saying the rally has received unequal criticism compared to other large gatherings across the country.
“As the data illustrates, South Dakota’s current infection rate is mirroring the entire upper Midwest region,” said Dan Ainslie, the Sturgis city manager. “There was some spread of Covid from the rally, though the national media fixation on it is without merit given the fact that our experience is so similar to our neighbors.”