NEW YORK — In a bruising setback to the city’s recovery, the nations’s largest public school system will temporarily shut down in-person learning this week after coronavirus infections in New York City climbed to a level not seen since the spring, when the city was the national epicenter of the pandemic.
Mayor Bill de Blasio exacted a hard won victory in bringing some 300,000 kids back to school in September — one of the more successful endeavors by the administration since the onset of the pandemic. But amid reluctance from the teachers union, the city agreed to close schools if it reached a 3 percent infection rate on a 7-day average, which Mayor Bill de Blasio said it just reached Wednesday.
“No one is happy about this decision,” de Blasio said during a press briefing Wednesday afternoon. “We are resolved to keep fighting and we will overcome this moment.”
He added he expects schools to remain closed through Thanksgiving and said the week after the holiday would be the earliest schools could reopen.
Restaurants, bars and in-person retail remain open under state-mandated restrictions. De Blasio said he was in conversations throughout the morning with Gov. Andrew Cuomo who conducted a combative press conference in Albany earlier in the day, and declined to answer questions on whether city schools would be open Thursday.
In an email to principals, first reported by The New York Times, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said schools have seen a Covid-19 positivity rate of only 0.19 percent out of more than 120,000 students and staff tested but that the city established a 3 percent threshold and was sticking to it.
He said certain staff such as school safety agents, custodians, skilled tradespeople and school food employees and others will be required to be onsite at Department of Education buildings. Other school-based staff members will have access to their school building for delivery and pickup and distribution of devices and other learning materials.
Community-based early childhood programs, family and child care programs and Learning Bridge sites — which provide free child care for children up to the 8th grade — will remain open. Health care and essential workers, along with families experiencing homelessness will be prioritized for those facilities.
Last week as the city’s seven-day average positivity rate reached closer to 3 percent de Blasio and Carranza instructed parents and educators to begin preparing for closures.
Parents, teachers, doctors and other city officials voiced frustration recently with the prospect of closing schools, citing the low transmission rates in schools so far as well as the widespread disruption involved in closing schools.
“I wish we could have waited a few days. I don’t think there would have been harm in waiting a few days when the schools would have been closed for Thanksgiving,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia and once an informal adviser to the mayor. “I think the mayor and the city were under very significant pressure from the teachers union, and he had to abide by the understanding that was reached last summer. That said, I’m concerned about a number of issues here: that the restaurants are open and the schools are closed.”
In a previous interview, Redlener said, “Schools are not large superspreaders, as far as we know … I am really concerned about loss of continuity in education for those high-risk kids.”
In the spring, as the coronavirus made its first deadly march through the city, the de Blasio administration maintained closing the school system was an absolute last resort, insisting that in-person learning was the best option, especially for low-income families and vulnerable students.
But following pressure from teachers and eventually, the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers union, de Blasio ultimately relented and closed the school system.
De Blasio has recently denied accusations he was bowing to political pressure by holding fast to the 3 percent cutoff.
“The decision we made was made with our health care leadership and not with the unions at all,” the mayor said in a radio interview Friday. “I mean, literally the three percent decision, I remember vividly the meeting in which we decided it. It was not a proposal from the unions. It was not a collective bargaining matter.”
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, didn’t confirm or deny the the union was pressuring the city to close schools, but praised the mayor’s decision last week.
“I mean, people like to look into things,” Mulgrew said in a recent interview. “We have enough craziness going on right now, to say the least in this country… it was attested to by the city of New York that they would follow this plan. He’s following the plan he submitted and was approved. So yes, the mayor’s doing what he said he was gonna do. That’s the right thing.”
In a statement Wednesday, Mulgrew urged New Yorkers to help bring down infection rates.
“Now it’s the job of all New Yorkers to maintain social distance, wear masks and take all other steps to substantially lower the infection rate so school buildings can re-open for in-person instruction,” he said.
De Blasio and other city officials acknowledged Thursday there had been “intense” debate within the administration over the decision to close schools.
“There’s definitely been some debate,” he said, adding that many of his staffers were parents themselves. “The whole conversation has been filled with that natural tension. We have followed a cautious and conservative strategy. It has served us well.”
Dr. Uché Blackstock, an emergency medicine physician and Brooklyn resident who has a 3-year-old son in prekindergarten and a 5-year-old son in first grade, both at P.S. 11, said her children have been in person five days a week since September and that it’s been going “incredibly well.”
But she said the mayor has “backed himself into a corner with the teachers union.”
“I think that he’s balancing these political pressures but unfortunately our children are going to suffer as a result,” Blackstock said.
She also said the wavering and back-and-forth by the mayor undermined parental trust and said messaging around the safety of schools could have been better.
“I think that if the DOE and the mayor had really laid out clearly this is how we’re gonna protect your children, right, this is how, this is the benefit of your children being in school versus learning remotely, then we probably would have had more children enrolled for in-person learning but that wasn’t done and it wasn’t done well,” she said.
Amanda Eisenberg contributed reporting.