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It’s Time to Close Schools in NYC – and Support Families and Kids in the Process

** We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming of literacy & math instruction geekery because of a global health crisis. **

I’m a New York City mom raising a second grader in the most densely-populated city in the United States.

In the last few days, I’ve watched leaders make important decisions to close schools, after deliberations by governors and more often by concerned superintendents. As of yesterday, roughly 40% of US schoolchildren are affected by the closures, and states have continued to announce closings (North Carolina, Delaware, and Alaska have closed since the tweet below, from this morning).

Yet here in NYC – a city so closely contained that it can feel like living in a Petri dish – schools remain open. Our mayor is deeply dedicated to “do our damnedest to keep the schools open,” even though community contagion is known to be well underway.

In fact, Mayor DeBlasio vigorously defended his choice yesterday, largely on this basis:

I’m concerned that schools are still open. I’m not an epidemiologist, but reading #epitwitter (it’s a Thing!), epidemiologists seem confident that kids are carriers. Keeping schools open just seems like a big community contagion assist. If our actions now prolong the outbreak, NYC’s most vulnerable kids and families are just going to be stressed for a longer period of time.

I do respect the mayor’s rationale for keeping schools open: a commitment to the city’s many children in need, and also to vulnerable working parents.

Yet it now seems clear that parents and teachers are going to take matters into their own hands. I want to know that our mayor and chancellor are planning with that reality in mind.

Also, districts across the US are deploying programs to feed students and even to organize childcare options for families. NYC can follow those leaders.

So, let’s talk about the true situation on the ground, some of which has seen limited reporting – and find solutions that support both public health and community objectives.

Declining NYC Schools Attendance

Yesterday, only 68% of NYC students showed up for school:

If schools are open on Monday, this figure will inevitably drop. Yes, it is more privileged parents who had the luxury of keeping kids home. I kept my daughter home Friday, as did many parent friends, and have no plans to reverse that decision.

If we know that attendance is going to plummet, why are we still acting like the schools should operate as usual?

Growing Teacher Sickouts

Teachers are worried and want schools closed. This angle hasn’t received enough attention, IMHO.

NYC teacher sources tell me that yesterday, three schools had significant teacher sickouts:

At PS 107 in Brooklyn, which briefly closed due to coronavirus concerns, only 25% of students showed up and twenty of its twenty-five teachers stayed home.

At Grace Dodge HS in the Bronx, extensive teacher absenteeism – following a positive coronavirus test for a teacher that failed to close the school – forced the area Superintendent and Deputy Superintendent (senior administrators for that region) to be called in to supervise students.

Update: the New York Post has reported on the sickout protest movement, predicting that it grows.

At another large school in Brooklyn, 25 out of 100 teachers were absent, so the school had to do mass prep sessions, which meant that 200 kids sat in auditoriums together for class… the opposite of social distancing.

Because here’s what happens when sickouts occur: principals can’t get subs fast enough. Regulations require that instruction be delivered by accredited parties. So, when too few accredited teachers show up, schools shift to instruction in large groups, with aides for supervision.

At the Brooklyn school, they seated the students one seat apart in the auditorium, to attempt social distancing. Kids were just confused; “We can’t even talk with each other.” I have no doubt that they found a way to be less-than-distant.

Today, teachers from across NYC are getting on group calls to discuss additional actions. I’m seeing very angry Facebook posts. Both teacher absenteeism and classes in auditoriums are bound to increase if schools remain open.

Chalkbeat reported on the absenteeism to date, but the DOE’s assertions can’t possibly reflect the most recent situation, given the recency of the stories above.

Update: the New York Post piece on sickouts notes: “A DOE spokeswomen could not give the teacher absenteeism rate for Friday” but the absenteeism for that date was “likely to skyrocket.” Chalkbeat’s update on the sickout movement noted that 400 teachers attended the Saturday planning call.

What’s the Mayor Thinking?

The leading theory is that the mayor is OK with the idea that many parents will pull their kids, and that schools will stay open for the families who can’t do so easily.

Eliza Shapiro of the New York Times shared this:

But if that is the mayor’s logic, the public deserves transparency about it. Parents should be instructed to keep kids home if they can – so we can all minimize community spread together.

In fact, I believe it’s time for the mayor to change course. Close the schools for instruction, but keep some buildings open for food service and childcare delivery. Prioritize childcare for healthcare workers, since DeBlasio claims to be keeping schools open with them in mind (surprising rationale, since they represent such a small percentage of the students in NYC schools).

Update: according to Chalkbeat, governor Cuomo is working on “creative solutions” to do exactly what’s recommended above.

Districts across the US are taking such actions, varying the approach based on local context. In NYC, it might involve a voluntary approach… asking educators and community members to sign up to deliver services. Across the US, this approach works. Districts are clearly coming together to support their most vulnerable families.

And their stories are all over Twitter today.

In Baltimore, the district has set up school sites with food provision:

Same story in Detroit:

Superintendent Susan Enfield shared her food provision efforts as well as early work to come up with childcare options in Highline Public Schools (WA) – read this full thread for details:

Los Angeles Unified is also organizing childcare for families in need. As reported Friday, “A key element of the Los Angeles coping strategy will be to open 40 “family resource centers” throughout the vast school system that will open Wednesday. These centers will provide childcare, educational activities and other services. They’ll also provide packaged meals. [LAUSD Superintendent] Beutner said a list of the centers will be provided before Monday.”

In San Francisco, the city has organized emergency healthcare for families in need:

(It’s notable to me that all of the other efforts in this list appear to be led by schools and districts. Superintendents and principals are killing it right now!)

We see food pantries open in Baltimore City to support entire families:

We see food delivery in Vancouver, WA:

Lest you think that it’s merely the good work of a few leading districts – think again:

I could go on. The fact is, we have options for supporting vulnerable students while closing schools. Districts across the US are proving it.

Let’s make NYC’s story one of these stories.

Inspiration From Seattle

In The Seattle Times, Naomi Ishisaka recently wrote about “an epidemic of people helping people,” in which community efforts to support vulnerable families have sprung up.

Just as the US is two weeks behind Italy, most US cities are days/weeks behind Seattle. How can we start intentionally building support networks and community assistance for vulnerable families?

Can we start in NYC by recruiting volunteers to man food service and childcare centers in schools, in order to support vulnerable families? And take proper precautions in the process (face masks and disinfectant galore)?

How can the innovative and dynamic folks in this community come together to build the supports we need before they are acutely needed… and support our mayor in making the difficult but appropriate call to close schools?

Mayor DeBlasio, please close the schools and start looking for creative solutions like these. I’m standing by to help recruit the volunteer army that we need to get through this together.


Published inK–12 EducationLife in NYC

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