NYC public schools close Thursday, revert to online learning amid COVID-19 second wave

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza speaks at a news conference at the Office of Emergency Management about the Coronavirus, March 2, 2020.
Photo by Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The inevitable finally became reality for New York City public schools during the second wave of COVID-19, as Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza informed principals Wednesday that campuses would close Thursday, Nov. 19, with all classes reverting to online instruction only.

News broke of citywide school closures, while Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that all of New York City could potentially become an orange zone if COVID-19 positivity rates reached 3%–stopping indoor dining and capping gatherings to 10 people–and how an uptick in new COVID cases had prompted state officials to turn parts of the Bronx into a yellow zone.  According to state data, New York City’s positivity rate based on a seven-day average is still just below 3% threshold at 2.5%. 

But as the governor spoke, New York City principals leaked an email from Chancellor Carranza telling them the city had reached a 3% positivity rate based on a seven-day average and that all in-person classes are canceled on Thursday. 

“Given recent increases in transmission, we have reached a point in our City’s infection rate that requires all students to transition to remote learning,” Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza wrote in a letter to principals obtained by amNewYork Metro. “Beginning Thursday, November 19, all school buildings will be closed, and all learning will proceed remotely for all students, until further notice. You will hear from your principal shortly about next steps for you and your student. Please note that this is a temporary closure, and school buildings will reopen as soon as it is safe to do so.”

As the city fights to push back a second wave of the virus, New York City public schools have come close to shutting their doors and switching all students to remote learning. Last Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio warned parents during an interview with WNYC to prepare school closures as soon as Monday as the city’s COVID-19 positivity rate based on a seven-day average hovered around 3%. 

A temporary system-wide shutdown was averted earlier this week after city officials reported a sharp drop in both the city’s daily COVID positivity rate and it’s weekly average. City Hall attributed the dramatic change to a boost in coronavirus test results claiming that over 300,000 New York City residents received a coronavirus test over the weekend. 

As the city worked on a plan to reopen schools in the fall, Mayor de Blasio announced in July that schools would close if the city reached COVID-19 positivity rate of 3% over a seven day period to assure worried parents that the city was taking every precaution to keep schools safe. 

Cuomo hinted last week that the mayor should reconsider the 3% standard, which is remarkably lower than the state’s and instead close schools individually. If regional infection rates reach over 9% over a seven-day average, the governor has pledged to order a  state-wide shutdown of schools. 

But de Blasio has stood by the 3% marker while encouraging New Yorkers that the city will work to reopen closed schools as quickly as possible without giving details on exactly what it would take for in-person classes to resume. The mayor has also said that the city is still trying to determine what would happen with district 75 which serves the city’s most severely handicapped students. 

Most of the city’s public school students are attending remote learning classes, but the decision to temporarily close schools for in-person classes would disrupt roughly 300,000 children enrolled in the city’s blended learning model in which students take classes for one to three days a week inside of schools. 

Schools have not proven to be COVID supers spreader many thought they would be with infection rates among students and staffers remaining relatively low. In October, the city began randomly testing up to 2% of all adults and children in schools every month. So far, 140,434 students and staffers have been tested and 436 have tested positive for the virus yielding a positivity rate of 0.23%. 

During Wednesday’s press conference, reporters asked Governor Cuomo for clarification on the status of school closures given the discrepancy in COVID positivity rates for  New York City being reported from the state and city officials. 

In response, Cuomo repeatedly said that state law ruled and yelled at reporters asking if he was overriding the mayor’s ability to close down public schools. Eventually, the governor admitted he would not interfere with New York City school closures. 

“I mandated that the school district consult with the parents and have webinars and answer all their questions,” the governor said. “So that 3%, the mayor set, in my opinion, was in collaboration with parents and that was the agreement and that agreement should be honored.”

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