What the Delayed Coronavirus School Shutdown Reveals about New York City

A New York City Board of Education school bus parked in Queens, N.Y., in 2013. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
New York City policymakers should focus on addressing the structural flaws that made closing the schools so costly.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W hen coronavirus cases began popping up in the New York City area in early March, city and state officials continued to resist shutting down businesses and schools until late in the spread of the disease. City Department of Education (DOE) chancellor Richard Carranza said repeatedly that closing schools would be a “last resort” in the fight against coronavirus because the public schools act essentially as a support system for students living in poverty.

The number of students who rely on schools to provide hot meals and other services is staggering. The New York City school system serves 1,126,501 students, making it by far the largest school system in the country. Of those students, about 750,000 live at or below the poverty line, and 114,000 (10 percent) are considered homeless. There are two categories of homeless students: those who live in shelters, numbering around 36,000, and those who are “doubled up,” whose families have moved in with distant relatives or friends after losing their home. Students who are doubled up often face overcrowding, with multiple families living in the same apartment. The number of homeless students has topped 100,000 four years in a row.

“Specifically with this pandemic, or with any kind of disaster, it interferes with the welfare state — there aren’t the community and other facilities, if you will, to take care of it,” Joel Kotkin, Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., told National Review. “The problem with this happening is that so much of government is now in loco parentis. There are so many people who . . . look to the government for so many things that even poor people in the past didn’t look to the government for. And so, you get this disruption [and] the whole dependency becomes very obvious.”

Through the first days of March, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in New York grew exponentially, and various school districts and universities began taking matters into their own hands.

On March 8, Scarsdale, just north of the city, closed its public schools after a faculty member tested positive for coronavirus. (Scarsdale is a wealthy town, with a median income over $250,000; almost every home is connected to the Internet, so school administrators could be reasonably sure that mass remote learning would be possible there.) Yeshiva University, in Manhattan, also closed after a student tested positive. The same day, New York mayor Bill de Blasio recommended that New Yorkers not take the subway but insisted that schools would remain open for the near future.

“I will say definitively, everything we’ve seen so far, this is a disease that for a healthy child presents minimal risk,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “Parents want to see the schools keep going as long as it’s safe, . . . and we do have a tremendous interest in avoiding the disruption of the city unless there’s a very specific reason to act otherwise.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on March 9 that schools would close if there were a confirmed coronavirus case among students or faculty. However, both Cuomo and de Blasio continued to insist that city public schools would remain open. On March 10, the DOE sent a memo to teachers instructing them not to report suspected coronavirus cases to New York City’s health department, in an effort to keep the department from being overwhelmed.

De Blasio again tried to reassure constituents, on Twitter on March 12: “You have the largest, strongest City government in the country, and it’s been preparing for this for weeks.” That same day, with 13 confirmed coronavirus cases throughout his state, Ohio governor Mike DeWine announced that the state would close all public schools beginning March 16.

On Friday, March 13, both New York’s Roman Catholic diocese and Success Academy charter schools, the city’s largest charter network, decided to move to online learning. By that point Columbia, New York University, and various other colleges had also decided to close. City Council speaker Corey Johnson wrote on Twitter that the city should close the public schools, and Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, also called on the administration to close the schools.

Carranza continued to push back on the closure recommendations, citing the public-school system’s integral role as a child-care provider to thousands of working parents who lack any alternative.

“Not all parents have paid leave, so [closing the schools is] a last resort for us, but that doesn’t mean that if circumstances warrant we won’t go there,” Carranza countered in an interview with the local Fox affiliate on March 13. Interestingly, Carranza said the city health department had concluded that “there is no need to close our schools.” That same day, a public school on Staten Island announced it would close after a student tested positive for coronavirus, and another Brooklyn public school did the same after a teacher tested positive.

On the West Coast, San Francisco’s public schools announced on March 13 that the school district would close for the foreseeable future. Mayor London Breed had also resisted pressure from parents and teachers to close schools because of fears that a closure would adversely impact the city’s low-income students. (The district serves about 60,000 students in total, with 31,000 qualifying for free or reduced lunch.) There were 23 coronavirus cases in San Francisco and 168 in the Bay Area at that time; in New York City there were 95 cases, with another 155 just north of the city, in Westchester County.

On March 14, 64 teachers from Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, a top high school in the public system, called on the city to close its public schools in a New York Times op-ed. Some teachers threatened to hold a mass “sickout,” while Mulgrew, the teachers’-union head, wrote that “the mayor is recklessly putting the health of our students, their families and school staff in jeopardy by refusing to close public schools.”

It was on Sunday, March 15, that Carranza and de Blasio finally announced that the schools would close. However, teachers would still be required to commute to their respective schools for three more days to undergo training for remote learning. At Brooklyn Technical High School, which normally serves 6,000 students, five teachers reported contracting coronavirus by the end of that week. Hospitals had begun to brace themselves for a flood of patients, and New York doctors reported ground conditions on the scale of the 9/11 attacks. As of this past Monday, 63 Department of Education employees had died of coronavirus. Dr. Tom Frieden, former head of the CDC and New York City health commissioner from 2002 to 2009, wrote at the beginning of April that if closures had come just several days earlier, “so many deaths could have been prevented.”

At this point, New York City had to figure out how to provide services to thousands of students in need of meals and how to transfer to remote learning. The city arranged for school cafeterias to remain operational and provide takeout meals to students. But placing every school district on remote learning has been challenging, especially for the city’s homeless students.

“We’re talking about students who have experienced trauma of housing loss, and now they’ve also had to leave their school, and it’s a very difficult situation for them,” Randi Levine, policy director for Advocates for Children, a New York–based nonprofit, told National Review.

AFC’s website displays a map of the city’s school districts with the highest concentrations of homeless students. Most are located in the Bronx and the Brownsville and Stuyvesant Heights area of Brooklyn, both of which have high rates of coronavirus cases. Coronavirus has disproportionately affected low-income neighborhoods in the city’s outer boroughs, including the neighborhoods with high numbers of homeless students.

This means that homeless students must contend with remote learning, possibly in overcrowded conditions, while attempting to maintain social distancing in neighborhoods highly affected by the pandemic. If their parents are employed as essential workers, they must go to work, where they risk exposure to coronavirus; if they are unemployed during this pandemic, that presents its own set of difficulties.

Even for those who are not homeless, access to the Internet may be an issue: 27.5 percent of households in the Bronx lack such access, along with about 22 percent in Brooklyn and just under 20 percent in the other boroughs of New York City. Homeless shelters themselves generally do not have Wi-Fi or easy computer access. The DOE has attempted to solve this issue by distributing iPads with prepaid data plans directly to students living in homeless shelters. Students who live doubled up with relatives or friends must formally request an iPad from the DOE.

In all of these cases, overcrowding becomes a problem. “There are families who are in commercial hotel rooms where you have multiple children at different grade levels and with different needs, all trying to access remote learning while their parent, in many cases, tries to do work during the day — again, all in one room,” Levine said.

New York City has the highest concentration of coronavirus cases in the nation, with one out of every hundred residents infected. Kotkin speculates that the city’s density has contributed to the outbreak, in combination with other factors. The coronavirus has hit “Queens, south and east Brooklyn, and the Bronx, and pockets in commuter towns, where people take the trains into the city. Interestingly enough, some of the densest areas, let’s say on the east side of Manhattan, don’t seem to be as bad,” Kotkin noted. “I think there’s several things [to explain this]: Those people don’t have to take the subway, they can walk to work, [and] they also tend to be knowledge workers who can work at home easily. . . . So I think it’s a confluence of factors that’s creating this.”

Kotkin added, “I’ve always thought that density worked best for wealthy people. . . . The history of high density and poverty is really bad, and has been everywhere.”

At his daily press conference on April 15, Governor Cuomo admonished President Trump after the president complained on Twitter about the governor’s performance during the pandemic.

“Don’t be a Monday-morning quarterback at halftime. Never works out well,” Cuomo said.

This advice may be pertinent when it comes to the late closure of New York City schools. The delay in closing may indeed have been dangerous. Nevertheless, given the extent of poverty and economic insecurity among the city’s students, it isn’t hard to see why Carranza, de Blasio, and Cuomo resisted the closure.

The pandemic exposed flaws in the city’s economic and living conditions that have been deepening for years. Instead of criticizing city officials for closing schools too late, elected leaders and policymakers should focus on addressing the structural flaws that made closing the schools so costly.

Zachary Evans is a news writer for National Review Online. He is a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces and a trained violist.

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