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Bowing to overwhelming pressure from teachers, union leaders, and elected officials, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Sunday evening that he will be closing the city’s public schools, the largest school system in America. For the last few days, de Blasio has faced growing outrage from teachers and principals who feared the coronavirus would wreak havoc in school buildings and put vulnerable communities at risk. Schools will be closed through at least April 20, de Blasio said.
“I’m very, very concerned that we see a rapid spread of this disease, and it’s time to take more dramatic measures,” de Blasio said at a City Hall press conference. “This is a decision I have taken with no joy and a lot of pain.”
Until the press conference de Blasio, a liberal Democrat, had insisted the schools would remain open. In so doing, he had been bucking a national trend: states across America, including Washington, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and Illinois, have announced that they are shuttering K-12 schools to prevent the spread of the pandemic. City schools in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Philadelphia are all closing as well.
De Blasio had long argued the schools provide a unique social service function and that, along with the city’s 24-hour public transit network and hospitals, they should continue to function. The city’s schools educate more than 1 million children, many of them from low-income families. Up to three-quarters of them rely on the schools for reliable, free meals, breakfast as well as lunch. Suddenly closing schools, the mayor suggested, would further enflame the crisis.
But Democrats in New York City, including the speaker of the City Council, Corey Johnson, had called for shutting K-12 public schools. Putative de Blasio allies, like Michael Mulgrew, the president of the powerful city teachers’ union, also wanted the schools shut down. A turning point appeared to come Sunday when 1199 SEIU, the health care workers’ union and the largest in the state, called for the school system to be shut down. De Blasio, who is close to the union, had argued that health care workers needed the child care options that a school provides.
“We need to do temporary school closures to better protect New Yorkers from further transmissions,” Speaker Johnson told The Nation shortly before the mayor’s announcement. “I’m really concerned. I feel like the virus is spreading.”
The push to close the schools centered on several arguments, the first being that it’s difficult to practice social distancing in crowded classrooms and cafeterias, particularly in the city’s cramped school buildings; according to Department of Education (DOE) data, more than half a million students—or more than half the kids in the system—attend schools plagued by serious overcrowding. Moreover, while young people appear not to suffer as many or as serious COVID-19 infections as older adults, many worry that they may nonetheless be vectors for the virus, passing it along to more vulnerable grown-ups.
One teacher interviewed by The Nation said she was particularly concerned because she has just completed cancer treatments. At the same time, teachers and students, coexisting in crowded spaces, expressed concern that they could bring the virus home to vulnerable seniors and other family members.
“The fear,” Johnson explained, “is that children even though they’re not getting very sick from virus, they could be passing it on to parents and grandparent and then that strains the health care system even more.”
For many of those pushing to close the schools, their fears were compounded by what they saw as the shoddy rollout of the measures the DOE had taken to contain the virus. On March 10, as cases began to escalate, the DOE sent out a letter to parents promising to put a nurse in every school—New York’s schools have been in the grips of a nursing shortage for some time—and urging sick students to stay home. Deep cleanings were promised twice a week, along with supplies of face masks. The DOE also said it would close schools for at least 24 hours should any member of a school community test positive for the virus.
Many teachers, however, said they were terrified because their school buildings had been running out of cleaning materials to properly disinfect areas. Soap dispensers and disinfectant wipes were in short supply. Teachers, concerned that promised “deep cleaning” of students’ desks hasn’t actually happened, had written on the desks with pencil to see if any cleaning has taken place.
“We don’t have any cleaning supplies. We have no nurses and no isolation room. We can’t turn kids away if they’re sick. If parents refuse to pick them up, they’re right back in classroom,” said one middle school teacher in the Bronx. “We are teachers, not first responders. I personally would not have signed up to be a first responder. I know my colleagues feel the same way.”
Moreover, some feared that the DOE’s plan to close schools for 24 hours once a coronavirus case has been discovered was not sufficient. Others worried that the shortage of coronavirus tests would mean that students and teachers who became sick would not be able to get tested, leaving schools open despite the presence of the virus within the community.
As their frustration mounted, teachers began calling for a mass “sick-out” to protest de Blasio’s decision to keep public schools open.
“De Blasio’s refusal to close schools is infuriating people in my building,” said Richard Wieda, a high school teacher in Manhattan, a day before the mayor announced the closure. “We want to make sure kids are taken care of, of course. Food, health care needs, education—but we also don’t want to get sick ourselves, bring it to our families, die.”
Natalie Yasmin Soto, a teacher at a different Manhattan high school, suggested that the public schools should follow the approach taken by the City University of New York: suspend in-person instruction and prepare for distance learning, preloading Google classroom and showing students who have smartphones what apps to download. “Surely, it is not ideal, but it doesn’t mean we should not try,” Soto said. “Especially when, as we speak, their peers attending private institutions are learning how to do this very thing—and being kept safe in the process.”
Other teachers and principals were supportive of a plan increasingly championed by City Council members and education advocates to close schools but switch to a summer school model in which meals, child care services, and educational activities would be provided for students at selected sites. Their hope was that, by switching to a summertime model, the schools could preserve some of their essential social service functions. “Leaving the schools open doesn’t really help the situation. Teachers are absent, kids are absent,” said a Brooklyn middle school principal, speaking anonymously. “The mayor doesn’t get it.”
There are reasons de Blasio proceeded with caution, despite the explosive growth of the coronavirus. If he shut the schools suddenly, he and others agued, parents, particularly the working class and poor, would be left scrambling for child care options. There are 750,000 students who live below the poverty line, and roughly 114,000 who are homeless. A school closure, he said, could have a particularly devastating impact on health care workers in the city’s hospitals—and, thus, on the hospitals themselves—since there is no way for them to stay home to watch their children. And instituting distance learning would be a challenge in a city in which nearly 1 million households lack Internet access. Students with physical, emotional, and developmental needs would lose out on critical services.
There has also been debate, based on available data, about how much schools closings can ultimately stem the tide of a pandemic.
“I think we need to defer to the mayor on this. Only he is in a position to get public health, education, social service, and other experts and advocates together to sort out the myriad options and arguments over school closures on an ongoing basis,” said David Bloomfield, a Brooklyn College professor and expert on local education policy.
In the end, though, it was the mayor who deferred to the calls and cries of teachers, principals, politicians, and quite a few parents.
Councilman Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat and de Blasio ally, had begun calling for schools to close last week. He acknowledged that it would not be simple. “It’s easier to say and a lot harder to do,” he said.
But, Lander, added, “every additional step of meaningful social distance or enforced solidarity you take slows the spread—and saves lives.”