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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, pictured here at a Bronx school in 2017, is facing increasing pressure to close schools.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, pictured here at a Bronx school in 2017, is facing increasing pressure to close schools.

Edwin J. Torres / Mayoral Photo Office

NYC teachers union calls on de Blasio to shut down schools as parents increasingly keep kids home

Amid growing coronavirus concerns, the unions representing New York City’s teachers and administrators called on Friday for the country’s largest school system to close its doors in the face of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strident opposition.

New York City parents, educators, and schools began to take matters into their own hands, as the number of confirmed cases in the city jumped to more than 150 as of Friday afternoon. The number of families opting to keep their children home spiked as the citywide attendance rate dipped Friday to 68%, from 85% the day before. (Friday was a half-day for many students, which could have also dragged the numbers down.)

“We understand the immense disruption this will create for our families,” teachers union president Michael Mulgrew said in a statement. “But right now more than a million students and staff crisscross the city every day on their way to schools, putting themselves and others at risk of exposure and increasing the likelihood of bringing exposure into their homes and communities.”

Union leaders said they hoped New York would follow other large districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system, and Boston Public Schools, which have shuttered in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Some states, including Florida, Michigan, and Illinois have taken the remarkable step of closing all of its schools.

The mayor stood steadfast in his decision to keep schools open. At a Friday press conference, he pointed to new guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said the spread of COVID-19 might not be slowed by school closures. He also earned support from the 1199SEIU, the union that represents health care employees, whose members called for schools to remain open for those who need childcare.   

“A hell of a lot of people do not want them to shut down,” de Blasio said, noting that even with attendance cratering, more than 600,000 students still showed up to school. 

He added: “That’s a huge number of young people and their families who are depending on us.” 

Friday marked the first disclosure that a New York City public school student and a teacher were confirmed to have contracted the disease, forcing the closure of three schools sites along with a Brooklyn program catering to students with disabilities. 

Of those that canceled classes, New Dorp High School and the Richard H. Hungerford School, which share a building on Staten Island, will reopen on Monday. The mayor said he expected the Brooklyn College Academy site, which shares a campus with Brooklyn College, will reopen Monday as well — though that was still not certain as of Friday night. It was also unclear when the Brooklyn Occupational Center, which spans four sites, will open its doors. That school serves medically fragile students, the mayor said. 

Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network with 18,000 students, announced it will move to remote learning next week; at least two other charter networks, Democracy Prep and KIPP, followed suit.

Some schools have begun to make work available online and are allowing absences to be excused for students who don’t feel comfortable coming to class. Meanwhile, frustrated families are turning to Twitter and Facebook groups, voicing their anger and concern about the situation — as well as sharing homeschooling schedules and other tips to keep students busy, engaged, and following some sort of a routine as more and more are keeping their children home. Even the education department this week posted grade-by-grade curriculum materials that can be completed at home.

“I’m not taking any risks,” said Tracy Wong, a stay-at-home mom in Flushing, Queens, who kept her 4-year-old preschooler, who suffers from asthma, home from P.S. 120. “I spoke to the teacher yesterday about him staying home. I was very honest with her. She said, ‘I applaud you for going with your gut.’ It’s a very scary time right now.”

Wong, who is also asthmatic, worried about the risk to her and her son given they are susceptible to respiratory infections.  “I don’t trust being around people right now,” she said.

In Manhattan’s District 2, some parents on the Community Education Council called on the city to issue a clear mandate that parents can keep their children home, and are pushing for state tests to be canceled.

“A citywide policy is important. It can’t be left up to individual schools,” said Shino Tanikawa, a member of District 2 Community Education Council, who allowed her own daughter to stay home on Friday. “He’s not responding to parents who want to keep their kids at home.”

Schools implemented new measures Friday to keep people distanced from each other. That included canceling or having virtual sessions for school assemblies, athletic games and practices, recitals, and parent-teacher conferences. De Blasio said schools would begin to serve meals in the classroom to try to avoid crowds in cafeterias, and that gym classes should head outside whenever possible. 

Many City Council members, including Speaker Corey Johnson, called for a system-wide approach for the country’s largest school system, while recognizing the challenge that widespread closures will fall hard on students who rely on schools to stay fed, and for families who need childcare in order to work.

Councilman Mark Treyger, who chairs the council’s education committee, is pushing for a plan that would keep some buildings open in each borough for families who need childcare and for students who need critical services, such as children with special needs. Such a plan isn’t flawless, since it could be difficult to recruit staff and doesn’t isolate people from each other, but Treyger called it a “middle-ground.” 

 Shutting down the school system would not guarantee that children and families will take the steps necessary to limit their exposure to the virus, de Blasio said

“Do you really think kids are going to stay in their room, or stay in the apartment for weeks and weeks on end, and not come in contact with other kids and other people? It’s unrealistic,” the mayor said during his weekly appearance on WNYC’s the Brian Lehrer show.

Ninth-grade history teacher Brett Murphy noticed attendance dipping at Vanguard High School on the Lower East Side. Most of her students travel to the school from the Bronx, Harlem, and Brooklyn, she said.

On Friday, roughly 49% of students showed up to Vanguard,  according to city data. Just six of 22 students were in one of Murphy’s morning classes. Many teachers were also out, she said, and some children who did show up were calling their families, asking to come home.

“I think, just like with everybody, there’s been unease and not sure whether to feel like this stuff is overblown or feel like we should be panicking,” Murphy said.

The city’s decision to keep schools open has put teachers in a particularly difficult position, said Ronnie Almonte, a biology teacher at Edward R. Murrow, a Brooklyn high school with more than 4,000 students and staff. Though de Blasio has emphasized that young people are less prone to getting very sick from the disease, that doesn’t factor their ability to spread it to adults in school buildings. 

Teacher attendance slipped this week as well. The average daily teacher absent rate was 3.9%, compared to 1.6% during the same week last year. The mayor said the city was moving to codify specific guidance for teachers who are at elevated risk of complications from the coronavirus.

“I think the city is unfairly pitting teachers against students and their families,” Almonte said. “It just feels like they’re not actually thinking about us.”

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