New York City will close its public schools after a surge in coronavirus cases persuaded the mayor and governor that the urgent need to slow the spread of the virus outweighed the disruption that would be caused by closing the nation’s largest public school system.
The city’s schools, which serve 1.1m students, will be closed as of Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Sunday evening, and remain so at least until April 20. “We may actually have to go out for the whole school year, which is extraordinarily painful,” the mayor said.
Closing New York’s schools is one of the most dramatic steps that Mr de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo have taken so far in response to the rapidly spreading virus. The two Democratic politicians are often at odds but were united in resisting the idea for days — in spite of mounting anger from teachers, parents and public health experts.
They had argued that closing the schools would deprive healthcare workers and other vital personnel of childcare at a time when their ranks are likely to be put under severe strain. “It’s not that easy. For many families, the school is childcare,” Mr Cuomo had explained. The city’s schools are also a source of nourishment for thousands of needy children who receive free meals.
By late Friday afternoon, both men had shifted their stance. Mr Cuomo was instead ordering the city to prepare a plan within 24 hours to offer child care to frontline workers and meals to those students who need them.
Their decision was taken as the tally of cases in New York — and New York City — continued to soar. In the morning, Mr de Blasio noted that the city had 269 cases. By the evening, the figure was 329, and expected to surpass a thousand as early as Monday.
Mr Cuomo has argued that it is essential for the state to slow the spread before its healthcare system becomes overwhelmed, as has happened in northern Italy. The state’s hospital system boasts 3,000 intensive care beds, but about 80 per cent are already occupied. Some analysts are predicting the remainder could be exhausted in weeks, making it impossible to treat not only those who become critically ill with the virus but also patients suffering other ailments.
In an effort to increase capacity, Mr Cuomo asked President Donald Trump on Sunday to deploy the Army Corps of Engineers to New York to identify facilities that could be quickly repurposed for hospital care. “You can’t leave it to the states. I cannot do it. I do not have the resources or capacity,” Mr Cuomo said.
Mr de Blasio also pleaded with the president for a stronger response as the city’s economy screeches to a halt, saying: “We need the federal government to take over the supply chain. Right now.”
In an indication of how quickly events were changing, schools had little information to share. In an email to parents, the principal of Manhattan’s PS 87 school noted that the Department of Education was looking to create a “remote learning system” that would be up and running by March 23. “This is all the information that we have at this time. Once we have more information, we will pass it on to you,” she wrote. “Thank you again for all of your patience and support during this uncertain time.”
The schools’ closure will add to an eerie sense of darkness sweeping over the city as business and cultural life comes to an unnatural halt. On Thursday, the governor ordered Broadway’s resolute theatres — which played through war and the 1918 Spanish flu — to close down as he forbade gatherings of more than 500 people. Museums, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, many restaurants and other venues have also gone quiet — as have the many professional sports leagues that have their headquarters in Manhattan.
The city’s schools closed during the 1970s energy crisis in order to save heating fuel in the winter. They also tend to shut down for brief stretches after snow storms.
Mr de Blasio, in particular, came under intense pressure from parents, teachers and public health experts to follow suit after many other schools closed around the country. As the mayor dug in, unions threatened to sue him and teachers threatened to take mass sick leave.
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, accused the mayor of “recklessly putting the health of our students, their families and school staff in jeopardy,” adding: “We have a small window of time to contain the coronavirus before it penetrates into our communities and overwhelms our healthcare system’s capacity to safely care for all the New Yorkers who may become gravely ill.”
Howard Wolfson, a veteran political strategist who was the senior adviser to Michael Bloomberg, called the schools’ decision “the most consequential of [the mayor’s] tenure” and one that would “define his legacy.”
Urging action, Mr Wolfson stated: “Lives are on the line. There is still time to do the right thing.”