When New York City schools first closed in March, Laura Zuckerwise’s preschool-age son picked up a new habit.
“He was sucking on his hands a lot and his doctor said he was having a lot of anxiety,” she said.
Then public schools reopened this fall, and Zuckerwise says her son was thrilled to go back. That is, until Wednesday, when New York City announced that schools would not reopen Thursday morning in light of covid-19 cases creeping upward across the United States.
“His hands went right back into his mouth. It was just really hard to watch,” she said.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced the closures of all public schools after the city’s coronavirus infection rate rose to 3 percent on a seven-day rolling average. De Blasio had previously warned he would close the schools if the infection rate rose to those levels. Last week, he warned parents to begin to plan for closures. At least 300,000 students in the country’s largest public school system have had some in-person instruction this school year.
But some aren’t buying the decision, especially as indoor bars, restaurants and gyms remain open, locations public health experts widely agree are high-risk areas for the spread of the coronavirus. Evidence shows that virus transmissions in schools so far have not been significant. When de Blasio warned that the coronavirus positivity rate was nearing 3 percent, the transmission rate in New York City schools was only 0.16 percent. In Europe, similar evidence led to countries keeping schools open while introducing strict restrictions on everything else.
“School closures disrupt the lives of children and the capacity of parents to work, and have a particularly devastating impact on the most vulnerable populations of students, such as students with special needs, students living in temporary housing, and English-language learners,” Jennifer March, executive director of the New York nonprofit Citizens’ Committee for Children, said in a statement. “These challenges are compounded by the fact that many households across New York City still lack remote learning devices, access to WiFi, cellular data service, or adequate technological support needed for successful remote engagement.”
Families, bundled in hats and coats, gathered outside City Hall on Thursday to call for schools to reopen.
Politico New York reporter Madina Touré captured the scene as the small crowd carried signs that said, “I can go to the gym, but not school?” and “Remote learning is not equitable.” They delivered a petition signed by more than 13,000 people calling for the schools to remain open. In a video of the rally, mom Daniela Jampel, who spearheaded the petition, called the 3 percent threshold “arbitrary and outdated.”
“We do not want schools to shut down. All of the evidence shows that schools are safe. The schools are not any more safe than it was yesterday because the schools are closed,” Jampel said. “The safest places for students to be right now is in school, at a desk, six feet apart from other children, wearing a mask, getting their education.”
A crowd of protesters cheered.
One mom who supports reopening the schools says no one thought of the options — or lack thereof — that parents have when schools close.
De Blasio “said parents need to start making alternate plans. What alternate plans? There are no alternate plans for us,” said Carey Kasten, a college professor with a first- and fifth-grader in NYC public schools.
Before the closure, her children were in a classroom a few days a week and in remote learning the other days. During remote-learning days, they take part in the Learning Bridge program, a free child-care program the city has provided to essential workers during the days kids are scheduled to learn remotely. That program remains open while schools close. Kasten calls that decision ironic. When they’re home, Kasten says it’s a constant juggling act for her and her partner — also a professor — as they teach but also keep an eye on their kids.
She recalls one day that she and her partner both had to teach while her 6-year-old took part in remote learning. When she logged off, she found him not in his virtual classroom but instead playing an online shooting game.
“The idea that children are supposed to sit at a desk and stare at a screen, I mean, my kids really do not learn that way. It is not an effective way to learn,” she said. She also said pulling kids out of school yet again sends a confusing message to them.
“They’re watching the grown-ups around them just making decisions, flip-flopping,” she said. “We’re asking too much of them. They need consistency. They need schedules.”
For Zuckerwise, the full return to remote learning adds another strain on her. She also has a first-grader with an individualized education program. To be successful in remote learning, Zuckerwise says her son needs someone working alongside him while he learns.
That’s now Zuckerwise.
“I think I’m going to have to ask my employer if I can take leave … just to focus on making sure my kids get educated,” she said. She took leave when schools closed in March, but says she wants to be working.
Since the pandemic began, women are being forced to leave the workforce at high rates to handle caregiving needs.
“I have a career. I’d like to be putting my time there,” Zuckerwise said. “I’m not a teacher. I’m especially not a special-ed teacher. I don’t know how to do that.”
Some, including parent Rebecca Powell, said they are left to wonder why schools are closing but not other places, including gyms and restaurants.
Powell is a human milk immunologist at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, currently conducting a large-scale study on covid-19 in breast milk. She says schools were successful at reducing risk, with children masked and seated apart from one another in smaller classroom settings.
“I’m a scientist,” she said. “I felt very safe with the way they planned to have school.” Why did schools have to close when people can sit inside a restaurant without a mask. Instead, why didn’t the city at least consider putting up tents outdoors to continue school, like some restaurants have for outdoor dining, she asked.
“First of all, education should be prioritized. So those places of education, for especially young children, should have remained open, but in a safe way,” she said.
“It's just incredible how poorly it was handled. Every time I think about it, it makes me and every other parent so angry,” she said.
Teacher Anna Meyer said there’s frustration that schools aren’t being prioritized by the city.
“Schools were only opened with this agreed-upon 3 percent threshold, but there hasn’t been that same threshold with bars, restaurants and gyms. This isn’t going to stop community spread when there are no other measures in place,” said Meyer, a ninth-grade history teacher in the Bronx.
Meyer says the quick decision Wednesday afternoon left parents scrambling for child care.
“There was no warning,” she said. And, as a teacher, she says she’s seen firsthand the challenges of remote learning. While her ninth-graders have learned time-management skills, she says many still benefit from the in-person support school offers. “I think that there’s a whole range of experiences. Some of them are having a hard time transitioning,” she said.
But Meyer also says that while she appreciates many of the safety measures schools took, there are also concerns, from dated ventilation systems to how cold some classrooms can get as windows have to remain open during the day. When students eat, they have to do it quickly, without talking, before putting their masks back on, she says. It’s “a nonsolution,” she said.
She called Wednesday’s decision shocking but unsurprising, given how she feels the city has left parents and teachers with uncertainty all year.
“We’ve been living with this level of instability all year.”