New York

De Blasio defends controversial decision to keep schools open during storm

Updated with today’s school attendance numbers

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city’s decision last night to keep schools open was made with “imperfect information” about a snow storm that hammered New York City just as educators and students began their morning commutes.

At a late morning press conference to update the city about weather conditions, de Blasio said that forecasts projected “as little as three inches on the ground by the time kids walked in the door of their schools.”

“Based on our knowledge of what sanitation could do over night, we were convinced that kids could get to school this morning,” de Blasio told reporters from the Office of Emergency Management offices in Brooklyn.

Not many of those students made it to school, according to preliminary attendance figures released this afternoon. Just 44 percent of students were in school, even lower than when schools were closed in January after a storm dumped 12 inches of snow in some parts of the city and temperatures hit single digits. Average daily attendance typically hovers around 90 percent.

De Blasio ultimately defended the controversial call, which has been criticized by both the teachers and principals unions and parents who said the inclement weather made streets and sidewalks too unsafe to expect people to make it to school.

“So many families depend on their schools as a place for their kids to be during the day, a safe place, a place where they not only are taught but they get nutrition and they are safe from the elements,” de Blasio said. “So many of these families have to go to work. They do not have a choice. They need a safe option for their kids.”

But Chancellor Carmen Fariña said she might revert back to making announcements about school closures later in order to make more informed decisions. Back on Jan. 3, when 6.4 inches fell in the early morning hours, Fariña announced at 4:50 a.m. that schools were closed.

Last night’s call was made at 10:33 p.m., hours before any snow started. Fariña said she has pulled an early trigger in recent weeks so that parents would not make alternative plans in case schools were closed at the last minute. 

“Might there be times that we decide not to call it the night before but to wait until the next morning?” Fariña said. “That’s one of the things we’re going to talk about and think about.”

In 2004, Mayor Bloomberg made a preemptive call before a major snow storm hit the city. But in that case, Bloomberg announced that schools would be closed and said he did it early for parents who needed to figure out what to do with their children.

“I want parents to be able to start making plans,” Bloomberg said at the time. “One of the difficulties in canceling school in our city is that parents depend on schools to take care of their kids. An awful lot of our families, the parents work, and so it really is an imposition on them in finding somebody to take care of the kids if the schools are closed.”

At the press conference, Fariña said that lateness from students and teachers would be excused. A department spokesman said student absences would be coded as “inclement weather”, but personal days would still be counted for teachers who called out.

“It has totally stopped snowing,” Fariña said. “It is absolutely a beautiful day out there,” a comment that she later clarified to mean that conditions had improved compared to earlier in the morning. Warmer temperatures turned the snow to rain and roads cleared up, but a stiff headwind and slush on the sidewalks made walking difficult.  

Criticism continued to pile up from educators and parents. TV weatherman Al Roker piled on over Twitter, saying de Blasio’s comments were misleading since forecasts consistently predicted that snowfall would hit the hardest immediately before schools opened. 

It’s the fourth major storm since de Blasio entered office six weeks ago in what is amounting to an unusually harsh winter for the city. De Blasio has gotten stricter since he cancelled school on Jan. 3, keeping the system open in subsequent storms.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.