Amid Rising Coronavirus Cases, New York City Shuts Its Schools — Again

Nov 18, 2020
Originally published on November 19, 2020 7:16 am

In another sign of the enduring nationwide impact of the coronavirus pandemic, New York City — still the U.S. city with the highest death toll — announced it will again close its schools for in-person learning as of Thursday, Nov. 19.

The announcement came after 2 p.m. ET at a news conference that had been delayed for several hours, adding to the anxiety of many families that had feared the closure was coming.

When the school year finally began at the end of September after two delays, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that if the city reached an average 3% positivity rate over a seven-day period of coronavirus testing, schools would close again. This is the most cautious threshold recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its school-reopening guidelines. The city hit that number over the past few days.

De Blasio portrayed his decision as a promise kept both to educators and to parents.

"We've got to keep faith with our school communities and be consistent," he told radio host Brian Lehrer on WNYC last Friday. The United Federation of Teachers, the union that represents most New York City instructors, had endorsed sticking with the plan as laid out.

Of the city's approximately 1 million public school students, only about 300,000 had been attending school in person on a hybrid schedule, along with some pre-K and special education students who were able to attend full time. The remaining students have been learning remotely. The shutdown comes only a few days after the end of an opt-in period during which more families could choose in-person learning.

Among parents who had chosen in-person instruction, many were livid over yet another change in plans. Daniela Jampel, a parent of two in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, created a petition to keep schools open that has collected almost 11,000 signatures.

"It's frankly ridiculous that you can go to a restaurant and have someone serve you a pizza indoors, but my child is being deprived of an education," she told NPR. "Our priorities are just backwards." (New York City is still open for limited-capacity in-person dining; so are Washington, D.C., Fairfax County, Va., Detroit and Boston — all places where schools are closed.)

Jampel said not only are her children too young to get much benefit from remote instruction, but she and her husband need their kids to be in school for what is also effectively child care. "It's just so frustrating how parents and especially working mothers have been just dumped on this entire time."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

More than a million students in the nation's largest school district will once again be learning from home today. New York City has closed its schools because the coronavirus has gotten so bad there again. Anya Kamenetz from the NPR Ed team is in New York and joins us now. Good morning, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: How did this happen? How did New York get to this point?

KAMENETZ: Well, it's been a saga. You know, the opening of schools was delayed twice this fall. There were acrimonious debates between parents, the union, educators, the city, the state. And most recently, it was hours after sort of the initial announcement that parents actually learned that they wouldn't have anywhere to send their children the next day.

MARTIN: So how are officials making this decision? What criteria are they basing it on?

KAMENETZ: So Mayor Bill de Blasio had previously set this threshold of 3% positivity rates on tests taken across the city. That's very different from what we're seeing inside the schools, where there are very few cases. And we've been edging closer to that 3% standard over this past weekend. Now, Rachel, 3% positivity is a pretty low level. Some critics have called it arbitrary. The mayor has called it, you know, conservative and stringent.

MARTIN: How does this decision in New York compare to what's happening in other places around the country?

KAMENETZ: I mean, I think what we've been seeing - obviously, cases are rising around the country. And even in places where they'd opened up, sometimes they have to close down again because there's so many staff in quarantine. But generally across the country, cities are much more likely to either stay remote or go remote. You know, LAUSD and Chicago have stayed remote this whole time. Detroit and Denver just went remote. So did Des Moines. So did Toledo, Oklahoma City. And so it's really - it's a tough time for in-person school right now.

MARTIN: So what are you learning, Anya, about the science? Does closing schools actually make a difference in curbing the spread?

KAMENETZ: This is a really tricky point. You know, most scientists at this point will tell you that schools, especially elementary schools, have not been found to be significant sources of spread. As I reported recently, we're seeing in many places in Europe they've been dealing with the second wave by closing bars, restaurants, sometimes lots of businesses, yet keeping schools open. But there's very few, if any, places in the United States that are actually putting the kids first in that way. So lots of critics have pointed out here in New York City, indoor dining is still open at 25% capacity. And there are many local officials calling on the mayor and the governor to prioritize schools over bars or restaurants.

MARTIN: What are parents telling you - I mean, especially parents who can't telework - right? - who can't stay home with their kids?

KAMENETZ: Right. So, you know, Rachel, this is a big, diverse district. It's majority low-income. And we should note only about 300,000 of the million-plus students have been going to school in person. So there's a lot of variations.

The mayor did mention yesterday that the city has space in its Learning Bridges program, which is basically free child care, especially for essential workers. It's about 30,000 spots right now.

We also heard yesterday - and this is kind of upsetting when it comes to equity - there are about 60,000 students in the city who still don't have devices for learning at home. They're going to be getting paper packets, and that's eight months since schools closed.

But I think - you know, I talked to Daniela Jampel, who started a petition to keep schools open. She's a working mother of two, and she feels like the city's taking parents like her for granted.

DANIELA JAMPEL: I think a lot of it is, frankly, like, you're a parent, and you love your children, so you'll just figure it out. But there's just no recognition of the insurmountable burden that parents have been under for the last seven or eight months.

KAMENETZ: And she added, especially working moms.

MARTIN: NPR's Anya Kamenetz, thank you.

KAMENETZ: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.