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Why I think keeping schools open all winter was the right call

Trudging through the snow to get to school last Thursday, I couldn’t believe Chancellor Carmen Fariña didn’t call a snow day. But when I got to my building, I changed my mind. Seeing how many students showed up despite the weather reminded me how much kids and families rely on public schools.

I think the decision Fariña faced was far more complex than the angry posts that circulated on social media let on. As an assistant principal, I see firsthand the many services our schools provide that are hard for families to find elsewhere.

It’s true that it was downright dangerous on Thursday morning during the exact hours when more than a million children and tens of thousands of teachers, administrators, and staff members were making their way to schools across the city. The governor had declared a state of emergency and asked drivers to stay off the roads.

But the vast majority of our students still came to school, as did most of our teachers, including one who had recently broken her ankle, but still made the long, dangerous drive from New Jersey to Chinatown in Manhattan.

Why did so many of our students show up? As Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio noted in their explanation for keeping schools open, many of our families do rely on schools for hot breakfast and lunch. During the summer, they go to other schools that serve as “feeding sites” to eat. Weeks like this one, when schools are on break, can be very hard for them.

Our families also rely on school as a safe place for their children to spend the day, as most of them are low-wage, undocumented workers in jobs where they do not get sick days, have no personal days, and where it is very difficult to bring their children along.

Most importantly, our students rely on school as a place to learn, and we had a full day of instruction at P.S. 2. Commenters have blasted the mayor and the chancellor for portraying schools and teachers as “daycare” and “babysitters” and suggested that snowy school days are spent watching cartoons. That’s not what happened at my school.

As most teachers know, schools are increasingly being asked to play the multiple roles in kids’ lives P.S. 2 played during the snow day. Schools are a place to learn, a safe place to be, a source of nutrition, and more. As teachers, we help diagnose medical issues, address students’ emotional struggles, and act, quite literally, in loco parentis. Given our society’s frayed social and economic safety nets, some of the parents at our school just can’t be the kind of caregivers our students need to grow into healthy, successful adults.

If every adult had a job with a living wage and sick or personal days, as well as access to quality housing, healthcare, and back-up childcare, then Fariña might not have asked teachers to trek through the snow last Thursday. But for now, elected officials will continue to face tough decisions when bad weather threatens to shutter the institution that so many families rely on to meet their basic needs.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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