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Explained: What red, orange and yellow zones mean for keeping New York schools open

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ALBANY - New York will allow schools in areas with high COVID infection rates to stay open if they meet testing requirements and the positive rates stay low within the buildings.

The guidance, first announced in broad strokes by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Nov. 30, was more detailed Friday by the state Health Department, which said the goal is to keep in-person classes for as long as possible.

"New York State recognizes that safely keeping pre-kindergarten through grade 12 schools open for in-person instruction is critical to student success and parent stability," the guidance states.

Most importantly, the new guidance no longer requires schools in communities labeled orange or red zones because of high COVID rates to first test all students and staff before a school can resume in-person classes.

Initially when schools reopened in September, the state immediately required schools to go fully remote until 100% of staff and students in orange and red zones were tested —and those who were positive needed to quarantine.

But that level of testing, particularly in large districts, proved overly burdensome, with districts simply staying online because they couldn't get enough testing for everyone.

"There is no longer a requirement for schools located in red or orange zones to close to in-person instruction," the state health department guidance said.

"Schools in these zones may remain open for in-person instruction, subject to strict adherence to this guidance and any directives issued" by the state.

The change was welcomed news for educators, which grew frustrated with the 100% testing mandate even as their schools' rate of infection was likely lower than the community as a whole.

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In fact, schools have reported nearly 500,000 test results of students and staff since September with about 13,000 on-site positive cases, yielding a positivity rate of 2.6% — which is below the statewide rate of about 5% in recent days, the health department said.

"The changes the governor has made to the zones strategy will make it easier for schools to reopen and stay open," said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the state Council of School Superintendents.

Here is what will now be required if a school enters an orange or red zone:

What COVID testing in schools is changing?

Red zones have the highest infection rates in the state and require the most restrictions. 

But New York was mandating schools in both orange and red zones to first close to in-person learning if their communities were designated as being in either zone.

Then they could reopen for in-person learning if all students and staff underwent COVID testing, and then 25% randomly tested weekly.

Now that has changed.

What are the new testing requirements to keep in-person learning?

Red zones: Schools need to test 30% of in-person students, faculty and staff for COVID-19 over the one-month period following the zone designation to stay open.

The testing needs to be proportionately spread across the month — with 15% tested biweekly, the state said.

Orange zones: Schools can stay open if 20% of in-person students and staff are tested over the one-month period following the zone designation.

The tests also need to be spread out proportionately across the month, with at least 10% bi-weekly.

Yellow zones: These are the least restrictive "precautionary" zones, and the testing requirements haven't changed under the new guidance.

Schools in yellow zones must test 20% of a school over two weeks. If those results are lower than the zone's current 7-day positivity rate, testing at that school is no longer required.

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When would in-person classes end in a red or orange zone?

If the positive tests reach a certain threshold, schools in red and orange zones would have to move to remote learning.

Here is that threshold, according to the state Department of Health:

  • If the random testing sampling generates nine or more positive cases in any school, or if the positivity rate reaches 3% or higher, then the school will be required to close.
  • In New York City, the rate is even lower: a positivity rate of 2% or higher in a school or six cases or more would end in-person learning in a building.

When the infection rates in a community fall below the red, orange or yellow zones, the schools will no longer be required to conduct the regular testing.

But regardless of the zone status, districts still need to adhere to all other state COVID safety requirements, such as mask wearing and social distancing.

Who is required to take the testing?

The state doesn't offer an opt-out option for students and staff.

And students who are participating in hybrid learning or all-virtual learning also are subject to the testing requirements "and must be included in the school’s random testing protocols," the state Department of Health said.

The testing also applies to pre-kindergarten classes taking place on a school site.

"Members of the school community who test positive for COVID-19 must isolate," according to the state.

"Further, schools must notify health authorities immediately upon being informed of any positive test results by an individual within school facilities or on school grounds, including students, faculty, and staff."

Schools must also support all contact tracing efforts from health officials.

How can the school testing be conducted?

The state health department listed a series of ways that schools can have the testing done.

Schools can:

  • Work with local health departments to hold a testing event on campus.
  • Accept written test results from health care providers.
  • Ask students and staff to go to a test site run by the state.
  • Establish partnerships with other entities who are authorized to perform testing.
  • Request to receive rapid tests from the state.

The results must be received within 7 days from the date of the test, and it must be conducted after the date the geographic area was designated as part of a red, orange or yellow zone.

Schools that do not comply with the state regulations could face sanctions, fines or other penalties.

Also, the state notes it can "reserve the right to keep any school closed if there is determined to be a threat to public health or extenuating circumstances exist."

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Joseph Spector is the Government and Politics Editor for the USA TODAY Network's Atlantic Group, overseeing coverage in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. He can be reached at or followed on Twitter: @GannettAlbany

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