New York City is shuttering schools to try to stop the renewed spread of the coronavirus, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday in a painful about-face for one of the first big US school systems to bring students back to classrooms this year.
The nation’s largest public school system will halt in-person learning Thursday, the mayor said.
At an afternoon news conference, de Blasio said plans were being made to bring in-person learning back as quickly as possible if the infection rate drops, though he cautioned that the bar to return would be higher.
New York City has reached the 3% testing positivity 7-day average threshold. Unfortunately, this means public school buildings will be closed as of tomorrow, Thursday Nov. 19, out an abundance of caution.
We must fight back the second wave of COVID-19.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) November 18, 2020
“We’re going to fight this back. This is a setback but it’s a setback we will overcome,” de Blasio said.
Department of Education Chancellor Richard Carranza stressed that school would still be in session remotely.
The city had said that school buildings would close if 3 percent of all the coronavirus tests performed citywide across a seven-day period came back positive. As the rate neared that point last week, de Blasio advised parents to prepare for a possible shutdown.
The mayor said the rate equalled that mark as of Tuesday.
The city’s more than one million public school students will now be taught entirely online, as most already are. As of the end of October, only about 25 percent of students had gone to class in school, far fewer than officials had expected.
In-person school resumed September 21 for pre-kindergarteners and some special education students. Elementary schools opened September 29 and high schools October 1.
At the time, the seven-day positive test average rate was less than 2 percent.
Even as the school system stayed open, nearly 1,500 classrooms went through temporary closures after students or staffers tested positive, and officials began instituting local shutdowns in neighbourhoods where coronavirus cases were rising rapidly.
As of midweek, more than 2,300 students or staff at public schools had tested positive since the start of the school year.
New York City’s school system, like others across the nation, halted in-person learning in mid-March as the virus spiked.
While many big US school districts later decided to start the new term with online learning, de Blasio pushed for opening schoolhouse doors. The Democrat argued that students needed services they got in school and that many parents were counting on it to get back to work.
To keep students spread out, the city offered in-person learning only part-time, with youngsters logging on from home the rest of the time.
The reopening date, originally set for September 10, was postponed twice as teachers, principals and some parents said safety precautions and staffing were inadequate, with the teachers’ union at one point threatening to strike.
The city agreed to changes, including hiring thousands more teachers and testing 10 percent to 20 percent of all students and staffers a month for the virus.
When high schools finally opened their doors, de Blasio hailed it as “an absolutely amazing moment” in the city’s recovery.
“This is an example of what makes New York City great,” he said at the time. “We did something that other cities around this country could only dream of because we have fought back this pandemic so well for so long.”
The city’s announcement came just as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has frequently overruled the mayor on major decisions related to the pandemic, was finishing a news conference in which he said the city had the authority to shut things down if it wished to do so.
Cuomo predicted a “tremendous spike” in COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving as he pleaded with people not to be lulled into a false sense of safety during the holiday.
“Your family sounds safe, doesn’t it? Your home sounds safe. Your dining room table at Thanksgiving sounds safe,” Cuomo said at a state Capitol briefing. “No, you won’t be safe. It’s an illusion.”
Parts of western New York that have been under the least onerous “yellow zone” restrictions are now under more restrictive “orange zone” restrictions, in which schools go remote and “high-risk” businesses such as gyms are closed, Cuomo said.