New York City draws fire for keeping schools open in blizzard

Edith Honan and Marina Lopes
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers the budget address at City Hall in New York February 12, 2014. REUTERS/Craig Ruttle/Pool

By Edith Honan and Marina Lopes

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was blasted by a teachers union, many parents and even a well-known TV weatherman on Thursday for keeping the city's public schools open during near-blizzard conditions.

Even as school districts in neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut wrestle with how to make up lost time after calling repeated snow days in a storm-filled winter, public schools in America's biggest city have been closed only once.

Newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio, a champion of early childhood education whose own teenaged son is in the public school system that has some 1.1 million students and 75,000 teachers across 1,800 locations, defended the decision to keep schools open.

"I look at this from a number of different perspectives including that of a public school parent, which I have been for the last 14 years," de Blasio told reporters.

"Are conditions perfect? No, they're not," he said, but added that basic services were functioning and forecasts did not indicate the kind of snow that would prevent kids from getting to school.

He noted that the city public school system had closed only 11 times since 1978.

By midday, 9.5 inches of snow had fallen in Manhattan's Central Park, according to the National Weather Service.

Many in the city, including the largest teacher's union, questioned his decision.

"Keeping schools open and expecting children to travel through heavy snow, sleet and ice at the same time the city is urging residents to stay off the roads is nonsensical," said state Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, who represents parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island.

Elementary schools in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island run by the Roman Catholic Church were closed on Thursday.

NBC News weatherman Al Roker, known for his jovial TV manner, took a swipe at de Blasio on Twitter.

"How about all the parents and caregivers who have to scramble to get their kids home? Is there no one there with common sense?" said Roker, who has a daughter in the school system. "It's going to take some kid or kids getting hurt before this goofball policy gets changed."

School administrators say they get complaints from parents on whether they open or close schools in inclement weather. Opening schools causes safety concerns, while closing them can inconvenience families who have no back-up plan for child-care.

"Schools should have absolutely been closed today. The mayor issued a hazardous travel alert and told everyone to stay home if they could, but it's okay for teachers and students? Ridiculous!" said Malkie Grozalsky, 43, a Brooklyn mother of three.

Grozalsky's children attend a private school that adheres to the public school system's decisions on closing in severe weather.

"I would be so much happier if they were at home bothering me to play Xbox," she said.

Francine Laudisio, a school employee from Brooklyn, said she strongly supported keeping schools open through the most extreme weather, but understood the challenge that posed for commuting teachers and parents.

"Our job is to teach the kids, no matter what," she said. "But we have people that have to travel - the teachers, the parents that have to drive or take the subway - and it can be difficult for them."

(Additional reporting by Victoria Cavaliere and Chris Francescani; Writing by Scott Malone; editing by Gunna Dickson)