Keep New York City Schools Open

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New York Mayor Bill de Blasio took a lot of heat last spring for delaying school closings as the Covid-19 pandemic began its deadly rage. Now the mayor has been quick to announce plans to close all of the city’s public schools, possibly this week, if infection rates keep rising.

That would be a mistake. Educators and public health specialists are better positioned now than in the early days of the pandemic to make an informed judgment weighing coronavirus risks against the costs to students of prolonged school shutdowns and a retreat to online education. The good news is that the city’s reopening experiment — New York was the first major city to reopen this fall — has demonstrated that schools can be reopened safely (although only about one-third of students have chosen in-person instruction). Testing in mid-October revealed only 28 school-related Covid-19 cases, a .17 percent positivity rate compared to a citywide average above 1 percent.

Keeping schools safe will be harder to do as infection rates rise — New York City is approaching a 3% seven-day average positivity rate, the threshold set by de Blasio for closing schools. However, any calculation to shut schools must be balanced against abundant evidence of the academic and psychological damage inflicted on kids by online schooling. Not only are young children least likely to contract the virus or to spread it, they, along with economically and socially disadvantaged students, suffer the gravest harm from online education. A recent study in the U.K. found that all children have suffered a loss of skills, including reading and writing, due to pandemic-related school closings, with eating disorders and self-harm on the rise.

The de Blasio administration and the teachers’ union should try alternatives, including changing school schedules to allow students and staff to commute during off-peak periods, before resorting to another shutdown. At the same time, New York City should begin planning now for a robust summer of mandatory school, which will probably entail bargaining with the union to exchange time off in midwinter, when the pandemic is expected to be at its worst, for the summer when it is likely to ebb and by which time a vaccine might be available.

In the short term, the mayor could institute the targeted school closings favored by Governor Andrew Cuomo, in Covid-19 hot-spots such as southern Brooklyn.

Cuomo recently imposed a 10 p.m. curfew on bars, restaurants and gyms, the venues most likely to spread the virus. Such timid restrictions follow a pattern in which officials of both parties, as well as President Donald Trump, have put short-term economic considerations ahead of the interests of schoolchildren. Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore are among the cities that have shut schools while allowing restaurants to remain open.

By contrast, European countries have kept schools open and shut businesses instead, which threatens to widen the achievement gap between U.S. students and those in the rest of the developed world.

Given the failure of national and many local leaders to control the pandemic, keeping schools open in New York City will require nimble strategizing — historically, not the education department’s strong suit. While schools have remained relatively free of Covid-19, a major concern is whether staff and students who commute via public transportation could infect school buildings amid the surge. Recent studies suggest that subways are relatively safe — certainly more so than indoor dining. By delaying school start times, which also would better suit teenage sleep patterns, the city could not only mitigate transportation risks but improve adolescent health.

The city should also begin rethinking both school-bus routes and its contracts with notoriously corrupt school-bus companies. A new arrangement with the ride-share company Via should allow bus companies to devise new routes that could, in theory, also be used by school staff. Negotiating reduced rates for school staff who want to use ride-share services might be another option.

The incoming U.S. administration of President-elect Joe Biden could help schools buy valuable time for meaningful instruction by waiving standardized tests that consume weeks of testing and test-prep in the spring. (Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary, told educators that she would not approve another round of test waivers.)

“Why waste time and money testing, when you know kids have lost ground?” asked Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education and a former award-winning New York principal.

With schoolchildren facing a long, dark pandemic winter, the city should begin planning now for mandatory summer school. Summer curricula should take advantage of opportunities for outdoor learning — in parks, zoos and waterways — as well as the need to offer students much-needed release after months of being shut in at home with too much time spent in front of computer screens.

Whichever strategy it chooses, the education department will need to work closely with the United Federation of Teachers, just as schools will need to tap into the suggestions of rank-and-file teachers to develop ideas for engaging students who have been bored, traumatized and left behind. 

Following the city’s on-again-off-again reopening efforts last fall, the union was instrumental in helping devise the successful reopening plan. Maintaining trust with the union will also be crucial for negotiating ways for schools to stay open during the months ahead and for hammering out summer plans.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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