Note: After this story was published, the education department provided a list of schools that will close on Thursday. You can find it here.
A day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo expanded the number of schools required to shutter due to rising coronavirus cases in the area, it’s still not clear which campuses will close.
With just over 12 hours before students were set to return to their classrooms, officials had not publicly released a list of schools that would be shut down on Thursday.
Confusion dragged on past the school day, when it became apparent around 6 p.m. that the state had shifted some of the boundaries determining whether or not schools could stay open.
Since the weekend, city and state officials have struggled to get on the same page about which neighborhoods should be subject to more restrictions, as officials work to tamp down an uptick in coronavirus infections in pockets of the city.
Caught in the middle are tens of thousands of students, their families, and educators. School leaders, meanwhile, are left to scramble to make sense of the conflicting messages.
Half of New York City’s students have opted to learn fully online. That still leaves hundreds of thousands of students attending in-person classes at least once a week. On Wednesday, some of their parents in Brooklyn and Queens pledged to protest the shut downs.
More than 20 hours after the governor announced additional school closures, City Hall still seemed to be trying to understand the edict.
“We’re still assessing information provided by the State and have asked for more details to provide the most accurate information possible to schools and families. We will update you when we have greater clarity,” a spokesperson wrote at around 1 p.m.
Families whose children’s schools expected to be shuttered began receiving robo-calls around the same time. But not long after, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza sent an email to principals telling them to hold off informing families “until we can equip you with all the facts and information you need.”
As of 7 p.m. there was still no official word from city officials, though some families began to receive notices from their schools. Two Brooklyn families told Chalkbeat that their schools had informed them that their buildings, located in the orange zone, would be closed starting Thursday morning. Additionally, a teacher in Gravesend said her building would remain closed, per the direction of the education department, even as state guidelines permitted it to reopen.
The latest chapter in the saga over school building shutdowns began on Sunday, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to shutter more than 100 city-run schools in nine ZIP codes in Brooklyn and Queens. In those areas, the share of coronavirus tests that came back positive had surpassed 3% over the past seven consecutive days. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has final say on school closure decisions, ultimately shut the schools in those ZIP codes on Tuesday, a day earlier than de Blasio planned.
On Tuesday, Cuomo added a new layer of complexity. The state unveiled its own color-coded system for identifying neighborhoods where schools, businesses, and houses of worship would face restrictions. Schools in orange and red zones would be forced to close for at least two weeks. At schools in the outlying yellow zones, campuses can remain open but a portion of the school community must be tested weekly for at least 14 days.
But Cuomo’s red and orange zones don’t completely match the nine ZIP codes the city identified for school shutdowns. On Tuesday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza tweeted that schools that had already shut down would remain closed even if they were outside the state’s red or orange boundaries. State officials did not respond to a question about whether they had approved the continued shutdown of schools outside of the state boundaries but within the city’s.
Adding to the confusion, the lines on the state’s original maps didn’t follow a grid pattern, bisecting blocks in strange ways that made them hard to decipher. State officials have not explained what data they used to determine where schools would need to shut down, though Cuomo said officials used mapping software to isolate coronavirus clusters.
Some raised questions about how effective shutdowns will be, since students and staff often attend schools outside their neighborhoods, and siblings may attend schools in different ZIP codes.
Maps released Wednesday evening offered new boundaries that did not bisect blocks, but newly adjusted lines raised fresh questions about which areas would be affected.
The principal at P.S. 516 in Sunset Park, a school that remained open this week, told staff that the school appeared to be in a yellow zone but was waiting on confirmation from the education department, Samantha Nguyen, a teacher at the school, said. The school appears to face 4th Avenue and falls in the yellow zone, while the other side of 4th Avenue falls in the orange zone, where schools are supposed to close.
“If our school was moved right across the street, we would have been closed,” said Ngyuen, who had not received any additional information about her building’s status as of 6:40 p.m. “It’s ridiculous that that one technicality would keep the school closed.”
The new maps raised alarms for Nguyen, who is concerned about how safe it is for staff and students to go in when there are mandated closures on the other side of the road, especially as she’s seen more people in the neighborhood ditch their masks and congregate in big groups outside. She noted that no positive cases of the virus have been reported at the school so far.
In general, schools that have or will be shut down are clustered in southern Brooklyn and two sections of Queens. Some of the neighborhoods are home to large concentrations of Orthodox Jews, among whom compliance with mask requirements and indoor gatherings has been a persistent issue.
Although de Blasio has championed the reopening of school buildings as essential, the state’s plan allows restaurants and certain businesses to stay open in the same neighborhoods where schools are required to close. Cuomo has suggested that schools are driving the uptick in infections, though state officials have presented no evidence to support that assertion — nor is it borne out in emerging research.
Yet the mayor, who has said schools are not contributing to a rise in infection rates, said he nonetheless agrees that schools should begin closing in certain neighborhoods. “I feel empathy for all the parents who want their kids in school,” the mayor told reporters on Wednesday. “But, again, let’s realize, if we act quickly and decisively, we can overcome this for all of us, for the whole city.”
The mixed messages from city and state officials infuriated some parents and elected officials. Robert Carroll, a state assemblymember who represents a swath of Brooklyn including Kensington, Windsor Terrace and Borough Park, criticized the state and city boundaries for being too broad. The boundaries include parts of his district that have infection rates lower than the 3% threshold de Blasio initially announced.
“We’re not following our own rules, and this is maddening,” said Carroll, adding that the city already has a mechanism for shutting down individual schools should coronavirus cases go up significantly. “We’ve just gotten them open — to close them down for two weeks is so discouraging.”