Coronavirus in New York City: Why Closing Public Schools Is a 'Last Resort'

Eliza Shapiro
Outside of P.S. 20 in New York on Feb. 26, 2020. (Anna Watts/The New York Times)

NEW YORK — New York City has the largest public school system in the United States, a vast district with about 750,000 children who are poor, including around 114,000 who are homeless.

For such students, school may be the only place they can get three hot meals a day and medical care, and even wash their dirty laundry.

That is why the city’s public schools will probably stay open even if the new coronavirus becomes more widespread in New York. Richard A. Carranza, the schools chancellor, said earlier this week that he considered long-term closings an “extreme” measure and a “last resort.”

There are no plans to shut schools down, and Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday that none of the city’s 1.1 million public school students had shown any symptoms of the virus. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advised that, so far, children have been less likely than adults to become infected.

Even a single snow day can seriously disrupt the lives of New York’s most vulnerable children and their parents and other relatives, whose jobs often do not provide paid time off, said Aaron Pallas, a professor of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

“Kids will need to be supervised,” Pallas said. “And there are complex interactions here that affect the well-being of families.”

Large-scale school closings might mean, for example, that subway conductors and bus drivers must stay home with their children or that nurses at public hospitals would not be able to come to work, potentially slowing essential city services.

Although millions of students around the world have already had their schools close because of the virus, such a move would present a major challenge for a district where many children do not have internet access at home, making remote learning nearly impossible.

Nicole Manning, a ninth-grade math teacher at Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx, estimated that up to half of her students did not have internet access at home.

“We can’t do distance learning,” she said. “It wouldn’t be fair.”

Valerie Green-Thomas, a teachers’ coach at Middle School 390 in the south Bronx, said she would be concerned that students would not have access to crucial medical help at the school’s on-site clinic if there were widespread closings.

“We have a lot of underserved kids,” Green-Thomas said.

The situation has been starkly different thus far at some of the city’s elite private schools, where the student bodies tend to be much whiter and wealthier than they are in public schools.

Spence, an all-girls school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, closed Friday for a “comprehensive sanitization of the entire campus,” according to a notice posted on its website. It was unclear whether the school had a link to one of New York state’s confirmed coronavirus cases. School representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Collegiate, a private all-boys school on the Upper West Side, was also closed Friday for a similar purpose. An email to families from the school’s headmaster did not indicate any connections to a confirmed case but said that a parent of one student might have been exposed to the virus.

Private schools can decide to close independently, but public schools must follow guidance from the city and state education departments.

In interviews, public-school teachers across the city exuded calm and said that they believed school was a safe place for children to be given the current circumstances. It appeared that most parents agreed: Student attendance rates were as high if not higher this past week than they were a year ago at this time, de Blasio said.

Teachers said that, at this point, they were much more concerned about racism and xenophobia directed at Asian students because of the virus’s origins in China than they were with the virus itself.

Manning is used to nasty stomach bugs and seasonal flus spreading through her school like wildfire.

“We have good hygiene, and we don’t really do much different,” she said, adding that students were being asked to be especially vigilant about wiping down their calculators and desks, and about washing their hands.

“I’m a rational person; I’m a math person,” Manning said, noting that the small number of confirmed cases in New York City had not yet been a cause for alarm.

But she also said that she was spending much of her time “squelching rumors” about where the virus comes from and how people contract it. “I don’t really put up with nonsense,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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