School shutdowns could come Monday, de Blasio tells NYC

Students returned to school in September at P.S. 188 The Island School in Manhattan. But the city is rapidly approaching a possible school shutdown as early as Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio warned. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The country’s largest school system could be headed for a shutdown as soon as Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned on Friday. 

Families should get ready for a possible closure at least through November, he said on WNYC public radio, as the city quickly approached its threshold for school closures, a seven-day positivity average of 3%. That rate hit 2.83% on Friday.

“This is not something any parent wants to have to deal with, but we should get ready,” he said. “Have an alternative plan for beginning as early as Monday for whatever will help them get through this month if school is not open.”

Schools and families are bracing for the shift, which comes just one month after an all-hands effort by the city to reopen buildings — at the expense of focusing on improving remote learning, some critics say. The United Federation of Teachers told its members on Friday to bring home any materials they might need in case schools aren’t open on Monday. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza told principals the night before to start planning for closing buildings. 

One mom said she “literally shook in anger,” at the news that her two children might have to learn fully remotely again. 

“My older son is prone to anxiety and had to start virtual therapy in recent months. Since being back at school, he has been so much better,” she wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “My younger son is a super social kid — the one that every kid wants to be friends with. Remote learning guts him.”

Community-run pre-K centers would remain open, the mayor said, as well as the Learning Bridges program, which offers free child care. 

Families with essential workers will be given priority at Learning Bridges sites, according to de Blasio, but he didn’t say whether children will be able to attend full-time. The program was set up only to serve children part-time, on the days they do not attend in-person classes. 

About 280,000 students returned to classrooms at least once since schools reopened their doors. Because of social distancing requirements, most children have been attending class one to three times a week, learning online the rest of the time. Many parents have said that returning to school buildings, even just one day a week has been critically important for their children, helping them connect with peers and teachers more than through a screen. 

“This is heartbreaking. My poor kid,” Brooklyn mom Tamar Smith, whose daughter is in eighth grade, wrote on Twitter. “The one day a week she’s been in has been a lifeline for her well being. I’m so sad.”

The majority of students, however, have chosen to stay out of school buildings, with at least 54% of students opting for fully remote learning, according to recent education department figures. A higher share of Black, Latino, and Asian students have stayed home. The mayor had been trying to encourage more students to return right after Thanksgiving, and was hoping to allow certain schools to begin allowing children to attend more days a week. 

Many observers have questioned why the city is sticking by its plan to shutter schools once positive cases reach the 3% mark, noting that coronavirus cases in schools have remained low. Random testing of almost 112,000 students and staff has revealed an infection rate of just 0.18%. 

On the other hand, there have been glaring holes in the city’s Test and Test program when it came to handling school-related cases. Teachers at one Brooklyn school, for instance, did not learn that a student tested positive until 10 days after the family received the results — and the school only learned of the situation when educators called to check in about absences. Only this week did the city say contact tracers can now ask the education department for the school information of a child who tests positive for the coronavirus instead of solely relying on parent reporting.

Many families are also fuming that schools may have to shut down even though some indoor dining continues in the city, and other businesses remain open. The mayor has said it’s up to Gov. Andrew Cuomo to roll-back these other activities. 

While the governor has clashed with the mayor on decisions relating to schools throughout the pandemic, Cuomo suggested on Friday that he would not get involved this time around. 

Cuomo said that local districts have leeway to make their own decisions despite the state’s threshold to close schools if infection rates reach 9% positivity.“We set general parameters that local school districts must be within,” Cuomo said on a conference call with reporters. “But we left it to local districts to work with their parents and their teachers to come up with parameters for their local school district, as long as it was within those parameters.”

 De Blasio said he hoped that any closures would be short lived, but the city has still not laid out any criteria for returning to classrooms. Elected officials and parents lobbied this summer for the city to open up to only the youngest students, or those most at risk for falling behind. 

 The mayor said he wants to reopen on a “sustainable basis,” and avoid a situation where schools have to open and close repeatedly. But he was not yet able to define what benchmarks the city would use to reopen schools.

 “We are now going to come out with a policy on what reopening would look like,” he said. “We’re going to look at the standards, we’ll look at everything that we’ve learned. And we’ll put that out quickly.”

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