De Blasio says NYC school buildings will close for the rest of the year, but Cuomo says not so fast

New York City school buildings will not reopen this academic year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Saturday, a decision that would add the nation’s largest school system to the long list of districts where in-person instruction has been canceled to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

Hours later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the mayor had been premature in saying the city’s more than 1 million public school students would continue to learn remotely at least through June 26, the scheduled end of the school year. Such a move needs to be coordinated across the metro area and possibly even with New Jersey and Connecticut, according to the governor, who has a longstanding public feud with the mayor. 

It’s likely the mayor’s decision will ultimately stick, as public health officials and the governor himself have warned against rushing back to normal before it is safe to do so. If school buildings stay closed, about a third of the 2019-20 academic year will have been spent at home, an unprecedented undertaking that could have long-term consequences on the academic achievement and social-emotional well being of children.

“Keeping the New York City public schools closed is a way to contribute to finally beating back the coronavirus,” de Blasio said. “Lord knows, having to tell you that we cannot bring our schools back for the remainder of this school year is painful. But I can also tell you, it’s the right thing to do.”

While the city aims to open schools in September, de Blasio acknowledged that the timeline was “very initial and preliminary” and depends on the course of the pandemic. The education department is working on various contingencies, the mayor added.

“Next school year will have to be the greatest academic school year New York City will ever have because everyone is going to be playing catch up,” de Blasio said. “We’re going to have to find a way to make up lost ground.”

The city hoped the announcement would give clarity and help schools and families plan for the next several months. But the effort seemed to backfire when, hours later, Cuomo referred to the closure as de Blasio’s “opinion.” Under an executive order, Cuomo has closed schools across New York until April 29, and up until that time, districts do not have to meet the legal requirement to provide 180 days of instruction. Schools that want to be closed beyond that must get special permission from the state, according to his executive order. 

“There has been no decision. That’s the mayor’s opinion. I value it,” Cuomo said. “But the decision will be coordinated.” 

New York City has emerged as a disease hotspot, with roughly 94,410 COVID-19 cases, and nearly 6,400 succumbing to the illness, as of Saturday afternoon. The governor has said New York needs a massive testing system in place before going back to normal, and that system is only getting underway now.

Meanwhile, the city is working on a “comprehensive” plan for the remainder of this school year, including a “full plan” for the 75,000 high school seniors expected to graduate this year, a parent helpline through 311, and “creative” new online programming.

De Blasio acknowledged the trauma the school closures have inflicted on students, many of whom are losing relatives and members of their school communities.

“Look at what they’ve had to witness and experience, and think about those kids who are grieving right now,” he said, adding that the city will focus on mental health for families and educators.

The transition to remote learning continues to be a massive challenge for families and educators. While many students with computer access and internet connections have been logging on for virtual classes since March 23, tens of thousands still lack the resources to get online, despite the city’s best efforts to get devices into the hands of those in need. Others are working with printed packets that schools have mailed home.

De Blasio said 66,000 devices have been distributed to date, and that every child who needs one will have a device by the end of April. The city estimates it will provide another 240,000 devices to families.

City schools began taking attendance last week, and de Blasio has previously said that the numbers were discouraging. But the city has yet to publicly disclose the figures, making it difficult to gauge how many students may be left behind.

While the decision to keep buildings shuttered was “painful” to make, bringing students back a few weeks would not have made a significant difference in terms of academics, the mayor said, noting that several individual schools would likely need to be shuttered regardless because of coronavirus cases.

In-person graduation ceremonies are likely out of the question this year. Already, the state has eased up on testing typically required to earn a diploma.

“We do not want to see these seniors robbed of their future,” de Blasio said. “That’s going to be a primary objective. To all the seniors out there, we are going to help you. We are going to communicate with you and we are going to find out what you need.”

Though unsurprising and understandable, Saturday’s decision was a “really painful moment,” said Suzy Ort, an assistant principal at Park East High School in East Harlem.

“I feel so bad for the students and the families, particularly the seniors — the loss of graduation and the senior memories and last moments,” Ort said.

Her team is focused on finding ways to keep seniors engaged through the rest of the year, and hoping the education department will allow for a pass-fail grading system to take some pressure off, “because I think we’re dealing with an unprecedented situation that is all about trauma and people are really, really, really suffering.”

Looking forward, she’s concerned about the 130 incoming ninth graders they admitted for next school year, who won’t be able to participate in an in-person orientation or visit the school before the fall.

🔗Slow response

More than a dozen other states moved ahead of New York to pull the plug on the rest of the school year. Nearby Pennsylvania announced on Thursday that students would not be returning to class, when the state had about 18,000 cases.

New York City also lagged behind other large, urban school districts — including Los Angeles —  in making the initial decision to shutter school buildings. Through mid-March, de Blasio had cited the enormous burden closures would place on families who rely on the schools for meals and child care, among them health care workers on the front lines of the disease.

His reluctance became a flashpoint within his administration, with one of the city’s top doctors threatening to quit if schools were not closed, the New York Times reported.  By the time de Blasio ordered school buildings to close, New York had 329 confirmed cases, according to the report, in contrast to San Francisco, where schools shuttered when the city had 18 confirmed cases.

But facing a threatened sick-out by teachers, de Blasio finally handed down his decision to shutter buildings on March 15, a Sunday night, effective as of the following day. Without prior warning, some students had left their textbooks, calculators, and other school supplies in lockers the Friday before and haven’t been able to go back.

Teachers, however, were still required to report to buildings the following week for a three-day training on how to move instruction online. They traveled across the boroughs just as the virus’s explosion had made it impossible for the health department to continue publicly confirming whether there had been positive cases in school communities. That meant the system’s 75,000 educators were asked to go into their buildings without knowing whether or not they could have been exposed.

On Friday, the United Federation of Teachers announced that more than 40 current teachers and retirees had died due to the virus. The education department has refused to release the total number of cases within its ranks, even as other public agencies, including the police department, have shared figures.

Teachers have called the lack of recognition a slap in the face, even as many city educators work harder than ever to adapt to remote learning. They took another blow when the entirety of spring break was canceled after the governor ordered schools to continue instruction during that time. Many had been banking on that time to catch their breath and plan out their approach for the long haul. Teachers also felt demoralized after the education department, citing privacy concerns, banned the conferencing platform Zoom, which many teachers had adopted for its ease of use.

🔗Long term impacts

Despite best efforts though, the pandemic is likely to have long-lasting effects on students. The unprecedented crisis makes it impossible to know how schoolchildren will ultimately fare, but research paints a grim picture. Extended school closures in Argentina followed students into adulthood, when they faced higher unemployment rates. Virtual schools, meanwhile, have a poor track record when it comes to students’ test scores, studies have shown.

The resulting financial devastation — already, almost a million New Yorkers have filed unemployment claims — will only compound the challenges. Research shows that slashing school budgets can lead to lower college attendance rates, and students whose parents have lost jobs could be at higher risk for being held back a grade.

Since it remains unclear when economic life will stabilize, researchers in Michigan have recommended extending the school year to mitigate the potential effects of school closures.