New York City school buildings will shut down Thursday in an aggressive attempt to fight off another surge of the coronavirus, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza told principals in an email.
The rate of people testing positive for the coronavirus over a seven-day average surpassed the 3% rate the mayor set for triggering closures, according to the chancellor’s email sent Wednesday.
Building closures for the city’s 1,600 public schools will take effect Thursday, forcing all of the city’s roughly 1 million public school students to learn in remote-only classes for an undefined period of time. The closure order does not apply to private schools and charters, city education department officials said. Certain pre-K programs operated by community organizations are also expected to remain open.
The shutdown is a major blow to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who staked much of his political capital, as well as the city’s time and money, on reopening the county’s largest school system. It also brings fresh scrutiny to the critical question of whether New York City has focused enough attention on improving online learning, after education department officials spent the summer enmeshed in the logistics of opening classrooms.
The mayor has consistently said that nothing compares to in-person learning, and has done little to change that: The city has yet to put forward a detailed strategy to help schools improve online instruction.
The transition could be difficult for the 280,000 students who returned to school buildings for in-person instruction in socially distanced classrooms, especially for those who still lack internet access or are more likely to struggle with virtual learning — such as students who are homeless, those with disabilities, English language learners and the city’s youngest children.
“It’s not OK what’s happening. My son has autism, and he has ADHD. The remote learning is mostly inaccessible,” said Heather Dailey, whose 8-year-old son attends a program for students with disabilities in Flushing, Queens.
Her son, Jordan, said there are “too much distractions,” for him to learn from the studio apartment he and his mother share.
“I’m mad. The COVID cases are not going up by kids being up in schools,” Jordan said. “I like going to school so much.”
Heather Dailey with her son, Jordan. Jordan has disabilities that make it hard to learn from home.Heather Dailey/Courtesy photo
Public health officials have repeatedly assured parents that schools are safe, and testing for the virus in schools has revealed low positivity rates. Random testing showed just .23% positivity out of more than 140,000 tests conducted among students and staff.
Community-run pre-K centers would remain open, the mayor has previously 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, to fill child care gaps on the days students do not attend in-person classes.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has cast some doubt on the mayor’s decision-making process, suggesting that the city’s trigger for closing schools was too strict, and that officials should “seriously consider” keeping them open. It was not immediately clear if the governor would take any specific action to intervene.
The mayor and governor have clashed on school decisions throughout the course of the pandemic, creating a confusing mess of information for parents and educators to disentangle. The state’s threshold for closing schools is 9% positivity rate over seven days, far less conservative than the city’s 3% threshold, though state officials previously approved the city’s 3% trigger.
Other parts of the world that have seen a resurgence of the virus have decided to keep schools open while shutting down offices and restaurants. It’s up to the governor to curtail those activities in New York City, and as of Wednesday, the state still allowed indoor dining and gyms to remain open.
De Blasio has invested a great deal in reopening schools, going to battle this summer with the teachers union while forging ahead with plans to bring back students as infections had sunk to some of the lowest in the country. As he made last-minute decisions, including two delayed starts to the year, he and the schools chancellor earned a no-confidence vote from principals.
Despite the missteps, the country’s largest school system has been held up as a bright spot on the long road to recovery — though the reality on the ground is complicated. More than half of the city’s students opted to learn remotely, and many students failed to show up for classes at all. Meanwhile, more than 30,000 students left public schools as of October, according to preliminary enrollment data obtained by Chalkbeat.
Other challenges included a staffing crisis as educators are needed to cover two different types of schooling: fully remote classes as well as hybrid classes, with children attending one to three days a week and learning remotely the rest of the time.
Many New York City principals expected another citywide shutdown and planned this summer for such a transition. Even when students are in school buildings, many are learning online with teachers delivering lessons remotely.
But there seems to have been little attention across the school system on how to improve remote learning. The city ultimately allowed schools to scale back on live instruction while contending with the staffing shortage, despite previous promises. Even before the shutdown, most children were learning online most of the time, with students attending in-person classes only part-time due to social distancing requirements.
There are also major gaps in accessing devices and the internet to log on for remote learning. City officials are scrambling to equip homeless shelters with Wi-Fi, and to distribute tens of thousands of devices that schools and students have requested.
“Students still don’t have devices. Students who have devices still have issues. Students who are supposed to be logging on, they’re not logging on,” said April Rose, an elementary school teacher in Queens. “Now we really have to hunker down and address those issues where they do exist.”
At Rose’s school, essential workers could send their children to school full-time, and some students with disabilities also attended school five-days a week.
“It’s our neediest kids who were there. Those are the kids I worry about the most,” she said.
She said she was grateful for the chance to teach students in person before shutting down, giving her a chance to build bonds that she’ll now have to tap into to motivate students to show up for remote learning.
She was also grateful for a heads-up to expect a shutdown.
The mayor warned last week that closures could be coming soon, and the teachers union told its members to bring supplies home in case teachers could not return to their classrooms. Now, Rose said she’s eagerly awaiting guidance for when buildings can open again — whenever that may be.
“Everyone brought home their potted plants, the pets, the fish. I brought home stuff that I need,” she said. “I told everybody today, ‘Happy Thanksgiving, merry Christmas, and happy New Year.’”
Alex Zimmerman contributed