Let’s stipulate that making decisions for the biggest U.S. public-school system during a pandemic is no easy task.
Eight weeks ago, New York City public schools reopened to about 300,000 children one to three days a week, while another 800,000 continued in Internet-based “remote learning.” The partial reopening was a big step, after all city public schools closed March 15 and remained shut for the remainder of the school year. The remote learning that was thrown together by roughly 1,800 schools across the city’s five boroughs was uneven at best and a disaster at worst, particularly failing to meet the needs of city’s most vulnerable students. It took weeks to get tablets and laptops in the hands of the city’s poorest students. The city education department’s tech support was quickly overwhelmed. About one in ten New York City public-school students needed remedial courses over the summer to make up for ground that was lost during the interrupted school year.
And even when the technology worked as planned, any parent can tell you that class conducted entirely through Zoom and other screen-based communication is a subpar substitute for interacting in person with a teacher in a classroom. Adults have a hard time concentrating through several hours of Zoom meetings; it’s a lot to ask of elementary, middle, or high-school students.
New York City families are stuck with that subpar substitute for the foreseeable future. On Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he had no choice but to close the city’s public schools until further notice and return to online learning, because the percentage of tests coming back positive in the city had passed his red-line threshold of 3 percent. That is the lowest threshold of any public-school system in the country. It will probably not shock you that United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew thinks the city having the quickest trigger for closure in the entire country is just fine.
De Blasio set that threshold at the end of July, and he has all the authority he needs to change it. Guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that anything below 5 percent represents the “lowest level” of risk of significant transmissions in schools, and that anything below 20 percent still represents a “lower risk” of significant transmissions in schools. Governor Andrew Cuomo, last seen shouting at reporters and going on a book tour touting how he had beaten the pandemic, set the statewide threshold at 9 percent.
SARS-CoV-2 poses less risk to children than to adults, but that does not mean there is no danger; a small percentage of children develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome. Most have recovered, but not all. Children can carry the virus and have the potential to unknowingly spread it to any adults they encounter including teachers, principals, administrative staff, janitors — some of whom are in high-risk categories.
But so far, the evidence is that schools aren’t driving the increase in positive tests in the city. Each month, city testing partners select random staff and students from grades 1–12: “The number of people to be tested will depend on the size of the school, but will consist of 10-20 percent of a school’s population each month, students and staff included.”
The New York Times reported this week that “random testing since October has produced a positivity rate of just .17 percent.” Not 17 percent; 17 one-hundredths of 1 percent. New York City might have coronavirus problems, but those problems aren’t being driven by the schools. In this light, closing the schools looks absurd.
Unless you’re old enough to have survived the 1918 pandemic, our kids are going through something completely different from anything we ever experienced. Everyone who studies mental health in children is sounding the alarm; it’s not just the fear, stress, and anxiety, it’s the isolation. To the extent we can get kids safely in front of teachers and interacting with each other again, we need to do that. Our kids must not pay the price for adults’ ideological differences, fear of lawsuits, or need to placate key urban constituencies such as teachers’ unions.
“You want to make sure you’re sensitive and you do whatever you can to protect the children and protect the teachers because then indirectly you’re protecting other people,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said on CNN Thursday night. “Having said that, my feeling is the default position (is) keep the schools open, if you possibly can.” This is why much of Europe has kept schools open, even at the cost of some harsher measures aimed at the adult population. Moreover, many American private schools have maintained in-class instruction, with little evidence to show that has caused severe consequences.
Risk is an unavoidable aspect of life. The job of responsible grownups is to figure out how to responsibly mitigate it.