As the coronavirus continues its grip on New York City, a small charter network in East Harlem announced Thursday its classes would remain remote for the remainder of the school year.
The rest of the city could soon follow.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said at an unrelated press conference Thursday that he expected to make a decision in the next few days on whether the country’s largest school system would also keep campuses closed for the duration of the school year.
East Harlem Scholars Academies, which runs five schools from pre-K through high school, appears to be the first charter network to publicly declare that students will not return to their buildings to finish out the 2019-20 school year. Jeff Ginsburg, a network co-founder, said the decision was driven by public health, but also provided families and educators with clarity that they should be planning for the long-haul.
“It’s two things: For one, we just want to be clear that safety and health [come] first,” he said. “The second is we want everyone to be focused and settle into the virtual learning space.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered schools closed through at least April 29. Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly warned that campuses could remain shuttered for the rest of the school year. He told reporters on Thursday that a decision could be coming in the next two-to-three days.
“We’ll decide soon if we think there’s a window to still save any part of the year, and we’ll obviously announce that as soon as any decision is made,” de Blasio said.
The city has already canceled a summer program that employs 75,000 young people, citing health concerns. But even while New York has emerged globally as a COVID-19 hotspot, the state lags more than a dozen others that have canceled in-person learning for the rest of this academic year. On Thursday, Pennsylvania became the latest to do so.
In New York City, charter networks in the city have acted more quickly to close down its campuses, and shift teaching and learning online. Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network, announced the move to remote learning two days before Mayor Bill de Blasio finally shut down campuses on March 16. Success told families the closure would stretch on “until further notice.”
Representatives for KIPP and Uncommon told Chalkbeat that the networks are following the state’s guidance for when to reopen. A spokesperson for Achievement First said no decisions have been made as to when in-person instruction will restart.
At East Harlem Scholars Academies, students have been learning remotely since March 16 — about a week earlier than traditional public schools. The network mobilized ahead of time to distribute about 700 devices to make sure every student could get logged on. The network has also raised $350,000 to provide families with emergency grants to pay for rent, food, medical bills, and any other needs stemming from the public health crisis.
Part of the decision to close for the remainder of the year stems from the particular health risks faced by the community the network serves. East Harlem has notched among the highest infection rates in Manhattan, and many families are already struggling with underlying illnesses such as asthma and diabetes, which can put people at higher risk for complications from COVID-19.
Latino and black New Yorkers are dying from the virus at twice the rate of whites, according to reports.
“We’re conscious that while the crisis spares no one, we know that East Harlem, because of all the inequities in investment over so many decades, is likely to be hit the hardest,” Ginsburg said.
He said the network has already begun planning for the possibility that campuses will remain closed for the summer, when some students receive additional support.