The Cost of Closing NYC’s Public Schools

It’s not just parents who want their kids back in school. Photo: KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images

New York City public schools are closed for in-person instruction amid a coronavirus spike in the city — which has nevertheless left bars and restaurants open. I spoke with Lisa Miller, who explored the emotional and psychic toll quarantine has exacted on children in a piece this week about the reaction to the decision, its effect on kids, and how quickly schooling might return to “normal” once vaccines arrive.

Ben: Last week, Bill de Blasio announced that because the COVID positive rate in New York had hit a seven-day average of 3 percent, schools would be closing indefinitely. The move seemed to be met with a unanimous mix of bafflement and anger, considering the fact that schools do not appear to be a vector for the virus, and that other facilities thought to be much higher-risk (restaurants, gyms) remain open. Do you know anyone who thought this was a good idea?

Lisa: I mean, obviously, we are at a scary point in the resurgence of the virus and everyone needs to be extra careful. But to keep indoor dining and gyms open while schools are closed is an incredible relinquishment of responsibility to families and kids.

Ben: Am I right in thinking that the vast majority of New York City public-school parents have chosen not to send their children to in-person schooling anyway? Do you think the reaction to the city’s announcement is as much about the irrationality of it all than the practical effects?

Lisa: Right. Over the summer, when city parents were trying to decide what to do about school — remember, the choice was to go “all remote” or “hybrid” (which meant some days in school, some days out) — more than half of parents decided it would be easier to go “all remote.” That way, when the virus surged again, as everyone expected it would, the kids would already be set up to learn in a remote way, instead of having classes canceled and being required to readjust. And during the recent “opt in/opt out” period, more parents chose all-remote.

It stinks to have the kids at home all day — stinks for parents who have to work at paying jobs, stinks for the kids who don’t learn as well — but at least with the all-remote option, parents can plan, instead of subjecting themselves to the openings and closings that are out of their control.

But also (this is so important) parents of color are likelier to keep their kids home than white parents, even though they’re just as frustrated with the “all remote” option. The lesson up until this recent school closure was “Everyone hates remote learning but growing numbers of parents don’t trust the Dept. of Education to get the in-school option right.” And this suspicion is borne out by the recent school closing. It’s like everyone’s worst fears realized.

Ben: Having said that, the rate of COVID spread at in-person classes, if that’s the metric we’re using to determine getting it right, was very low. So the city did do something right, correct?

Lisa: Extremely low. The rate of transmission inside the schools is negligible. In the first publicly released numbers, more than 16,000 teachers and students were tested and 28 — 28! — cases were positive. Twenty of these were teachers.

We don’t actually know how the teachers contracted the virus, either. In other words, a positive test in a teacher doesn’t necessarily mean she or he contracted the virus at school. Could have. Might have. But there’s no concrete evidence that the schools are the danger zones. Meanwhile, I was driving through Little Italy yesterday and the streets were thronged with maskless people who were cramming around tables. It really makes no sense at all.

And, at my daughter’s school at least, the administration was scrupulous about maintaining safety guidelines. So, temperature checks every morning. Distanced desks. Masks on all day. Only one person in the bathroom at a time. So the schools were rigorously complying with what public-health officials know to be the safest way to go.

Ben: So this is really a story of the city doing something quite well — surprisingly well, you might say — and then abandoning it.

Lisa: Yeah, I mean, I always come back to this in these chats. I am in awe — in awe — of the principals and teachers who are working overtime to figure out how to accommodate so many different stakeholders. And they’re doing it. Most kids can go to school if they want to/need to (if their parents are okay with it, big if). The kids are going to school safely. If they don’t go to school, there’s a curriculum available — not as good as in-person school, and so much harder to monitor kids, especially kids who are hard to access anyway — but it’s there. And then, for these hardworking people to get caught in (a) a pissing match between the governor and the mayor, and (b) left to the whims of a huge and incompetent bureaucracy, well, it’s a shame. But the real shame is the number of kids who are being essentially abandoned. Abandoned by their governments, who are there to protect them.

Also, you know, the private schools have not closed, or mostly have not closed. Which means that the divide between rich and poor in terms of educational outcomes (which has never been greater) is widening. Is everyone really okay with this?

Ben: There is one very good piece of news on this front: the vaccines are coming. Once they are widely available, do you think things will go back to the status quo — as damaged as that was — pretty quickly?

Lisa: I don’t know. I think there’s a fair amount of suspicion about the vaccine among the same people who are keeping their kids home. It’s understandable, in a way. People of color have a long, traumatic history with regard to medical experiments and innovation approved by government that has put them and their kids in real danger. So I think that’s going to be a high hurdle to cross. So I do think that “remote” learning will become a permanent option for a lot of people. (It’s cheaper than paying teachers, too, so budget-strapped governments will want to lean on it.) What can’t happen is that our state and leaders become passive or overwhelmed in the face of vaccine resistance and agree to or reinforce a two-tiered learning system. Somehow vaccine awareness and faith has to go hand in hand with getting all kids back to school.

One more thing I’d add, which I’ve been thinking a lot about since reporting the “Children of Quarantine” piece that’s in the magazine this week: the extent to which Americans have not grappled with the way working parents need in-person school as child care is enormous. Teachers say they don’t want to be default child care, which is fair. They got into the education business, not the child-care business. But we haven’t had a real conversation about who takes care of children when adults are working. We’ve all just automatically sent our kids to school. And the fact of school closures has just revealed another inequity. People who can’t pay for child care don’t have child care. Period.

The Cost of Closing NYC’s Public Schools