The first few weeks of online learning have already transformed the relationships among the city’s students, parents and educators, who have come to rely on one another in ways unfathomable even a month ago.
“Lord knows, having to tell you that we cannot bring our schools back for the remainder of this school year is painful,” de Blasio said during a news conference. “But I can also tell you, it’s the right thing to do.”
The extended closure in the nation’s largest school district marks a somber milestone for the most disruptive moment to U.S. education in a generation. Mayors and governors across the country are weighing urgent public health concerns against the incalculable losses that vulnerable children in particular face when schools are shut down.
The mayor said the decision to close schools was made Friday evening after he spoke with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci supported the decision, de Blasio said.
But soon after the mayor ended his news conference Saturday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at his own press briefing that there had been “no decision” on closing schools in the city or state. He described the mayor’s announcement as de Blasio’s “opinion.”
The governor and mayor have been political rivals for years. New York City typically makes its own decisions about school closures, including snow days, though Cuomo said Saturday that he had the legal authority to decide when public schools across the state reopen.
Cuomo’s aides pointed to last month’s executive order requiring that public schools close, which included a provision that the governor would decide the length of the closures.
The governor said he wanted to coordinate city schools’ reopening date with the rest of the state and, ideally, with New Jersey and Connecticut. He said a final call was “not going to be decided in the next few days.” Gov. Philip Murphy of New Jersey said Saturday that “harmony in the region would be a good thing.”
Still, it seems highly unlikely that Cuomo will reopen New York City schools in defiance of de Blasio. Many other districts across the country have already said they intend to keep schools closed for the academic year.
During a television appearance Saturday night, the mayor asserted his power to make decisions about city schools and said his decision was about keeping students and educators safe.
“I run the school system” along with the schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, de Blasio said, citing mayoral control of city schools.
The mayor said that he would work with the governor but that he did not have responsibility “to another elected official. My responsibility is to those kids.”
At his earlier news briefing, de Blasio noted that the city was preparing to reopen schools as scheduled in September, and he emphasized that the next academic year might be the most important in the city’s history.
This fall, he added, would mark “a new era” for the system, with supports to help schoolchildren catch up on lost instruction. But those efforts would come too late for many high school seniors; the mayor said the city was working to ensure that seniors graduate on time, even if there is no graduation ceremony.
Although some parents have asked whether schools could reopen during the summer break, de Blasio said that was not likely. The city’s teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, has signaled that it would not support opening schools in July or August.
Unions for the city’s principals and its teachers released statements in support of keeping schools closed. De Blasio said educators’ ability to abruptly switch to remote learning would be remembered as one of the “heroic passages” of the coronavirus crisis.
Early last month, de Blasio faced pressure from parents and teachers to close schools as the virus began its spread through New York City. After first resisting, the mayor ultimately shut the system, saying, “This is not something in a million years I could have imagined having to do.”
The political squabbling between the governor and the mayor Saturday was reminiscent of their handling of the initial shutdown of the city’s schools in mid-March. On the morning of March 15, both Cuomo and de Blasio were resisting closures. But in the afternoon, Cuomo appeared on CNN a few minutes before de Blasio’s scheduled news conference to say the schools would temporarily shutter. A few minutes later, the mayor announced the same.
Although New York is the epicenter of the country’s coronavirus outbreak, more than a dozen states — including California, Pennsylvania and Washington — have indicated that their public schools will remain closed through the end of the academic year.
Many states and districts that initially avoided issuing long-term cancellations of in-person classes have done so in recent weeks as coronavirus cases and deaths have continued to rise.
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New York City’s public school system is highly segregated by race and socioeconomic status, and remote learning has revealed new depths of inequality.
Many students do not have internet access or laptops at home, and the city rushed to lend about 175,000 laptops and Chromebooks and 66,000 iPads to children who needed them. De Blasio announced Saturday that schools would, by the end of April, distribute about 200,000 more devices to families.
About three-quarters of the city’s public schoolchildren are in low-income households and qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, prompting officials to leave some school buildings open for families to pick up meals in the morning, as well as for other struggling New Yorkers to get food in the afternoon.
De Blasio said last week that the city had distributed more than 2.6 million meals to residents through open school buildings since late March. The city is also operating 57 “regional enrichment centers,” where essential employees can leave their children while they work.
The city also has about 114,000 homeless students, who have had to adapt to remote learning in shelters and cramped homes where they might share a single room with five family members.
New York also has about 200,000 students with disabilities — or roughly as many total students in some cities’ public school systems. Now scores of service providers are experimenting with ways to deliver complex physical and occupational therapies remotely.
Despite these efforts, many children with advanced special needs will fall behind academically and socially. Some students with disabilities are in school 12 months per year, but de Blasio said Saturday that it was not yet clear whether those students would return to school even during the summer.
While New York City’s education leaders have insisted on continuing remote learning even as other districts have stopped classes altogether, no one has argued that online education is an equal substitute for attending a physical school.
The loss of learning and social interaction brought on by the months of school closures are enormous, and the full consequences of the shutdown will never be completely known.
But the virus has already changed the school system even beyond the mass closures: The economic crisis created by the pandemic has led to significant budget cuts.
The city has cut funding for school budgets as well as some professional development for educators, after-school programs and the expansion of prekindergarten for 3-year-olds. Some elected officials were particularly alarmed that funding was cut for the city’s summer youth employment program, which matches thousands of low-income students with jobs.