N.Y.C. mayor's reason for closing public schools was 'arbitrary,' adviser says

Corky Siemaszko
·5 min read

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio insists he relied on science when he closed public schools after the Covid-19 test positivity rate hit 3 percent, but one of his advisers told NBC News on Thursday that this was an “arbitrary” figure.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia University and one of the mayor’s informal emergency response advisers, said he was indirectly involved in the talks over the summer between the city and the powerful teachers union on reopening the schools when that number was agreed upon.

“They were very concerned about reopening the schools and endangering teachers and school staffers and I don’t blame them,” according to Redlener, who said he had access to the discussions, meetings and senior members of the de Blasio administration while negotiations were taking place.

“But in the end, it was pretty arbitrary how they came up with 3 percent and not based on any science. It could have been 2 percent or 4 percent. This number was chosen as a compromise.”

“They just batted it around,” he said.

Redlener agreed that with infection rates rising fast again in New York City, there is plenty of reason to be concerned, but said that the city could have waited until Thanksgiving to close the schools and give parents more time to make child care arrangements.

“They’ll be closed for two weeks and then reassess,” Redlener said, when asked how this shutdown differs from the spring when New York was the center of the national pandemic. “This is going to be a tough decision. The rates are going to keep rising and we’re probably going to see a big surge in new cases after Thanksgiving. It’s very depressing, but I think we have to brace ourselves for a longer shutdown.”

In response to a request for comment from de Blasio, the press office referred a reporter to remarks the mayor and a top aide made earlier about how they decided to make 3 percent the threshold.

"I've been asked this question, where do we get the three percent," de Blasio said. "The three percent decision was made with our health care leadership before school started, and of course with our education leadership out of both abundance of caution and a belief that we needed a social contract with our parents, with our educators, with our staff, that we need to show we meant so much business in terms of opening school safely, that we would stake our claim at a level lower than anybody."

"We chose three percent because based on what we predicted to be the number of tests that we would be doing in New York by the time the schools were opening, we believed that that was a reasonably good threshold to estimate how much transmission there might be broadly in the community as a whole," added senior adviser Jay Varma.

De Blasio's announcement Wednesday to close the nation’s largest public school system sparked outrage among parents, many of whom have noted that the mayor has not closed bars, restaurants or gyms.

Also, de Blasio shuttered schools even though, as The New York Times and other media have reported, there have so far been only several dozen positive cases in a school system with 1.1 million students in 1,800 schools spread out over the five boroughs.

In a CBS News interview Thursday, de Blasio defended his “very high standard” when asked why he was sticking with it even though the World Health Organization recommends shutdowns only when the positivity rate hits 5 percent, and when schools remain open in other cities and states where the positivity rate is currently many times higher than that of New York City.

“We needed to bring our schools back in the fall and we needed to show parents and staff that they’d be safe,” de Blasio said. “But we said, if that rate went up higher, we were going to stop, we were going to pause and reset. Our schools are going to come back, but they're going to come back with additional safety standards. That's what we need to keep people safe.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo reported Thursday that out of the nearly 200,000 people tested statewide Wednesday, 5,310 were positive or 2.72 percent. Some 2,276 people were hospitalized and 31 more deaths were reported.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, along with other public health experts, has blamed the skyrocketing increase in cases in New York City and across the country on colder weather sending people indoors where the virus is more easily spread, and a growing weariness with wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

The pandemic hit New York hard in the spring and the state still leads the nation with 34,872 Covid-19 deaths, according to the latest NBC News figures.

Even with the case numbers rising rapidly, de Blasio was reluctant to close schools, arguing that in-person education was better for students and easier on parents. But under pressure from the United Federation of Teachers, the mayor relented and switched to virtual learning.

And over the summer, a plan for reopening schools in the fall with the 3 percent threshold was formulated.

“The decision we made was made with our health care leadership and not with the unions at all," de Blasio said recently. "I mean, literally the 3 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.”

Asked about the federation's involvement in deciding the appropriate threshold for closing the schools, a spokesperson said Thursday in an email: “The 3 percent number was developed by the city’s medical experts and is part of the state-approved plan. The union’s own medical experts agreed with it.”

“The city established the 3 percent infection rate threshold to make sure that schools did not become centers to spread the coronavirus,” federation President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement Wednesday.

New York was able to flatten the curve and managed to maintain an infection rate of 1 percent or lower through much of the summer, even as clusters of new infections erupted in some Brooklyn and Rockland County neighborhoods that are home to large numbers of Orthodox Jews resistant to wearing masks or practice social distancing.