New York City has more students in classrooms than any city in the US. And now that Detroit has just announced plans to close schools, it's widely expected that NYC will soon follow suit, perhaps even as soon as Thursday.
A couple of weeks ago, we reported that another COVID-19 'myth' had been busted: research by credible scientists over a large set of data has shown that closing schools does little to actually slow the spread of the coronavirus. Schools, the researchers claimed, are more of a reflection of the rate of transmission in the broader community. And even as cases have climbed in NYC over the past six weeks, the positive test rate in NYC schools has been just 0.17% according to the NYT. Public officials have declared the city's schools as among the safest in the nation.
Yet, as the city's positivity rate, new cases and hospitalizations climb, Mayor de Blasio has warned that the city is on the cusp of returning to the 3% positivity rate that has been set out as a line in the sand.
But is that really the smartest move for NYC's economy, and for its children, as the pandemic grinds on? As the NYT points out in a surprisingly critical piece, that includes the voices of parents and business owners questioning epidemiologists urging the closure of schools. In Europe, schools have been deemed "essential services" that must remain open; so far, none of the new lockdowns sweeping the continent have impacted schools.
But in NYC, classrooms might close before bars and restaurants.
To be sure, it's not the only US city where school closures are still part of the policy mix. Last month, Boston canceled in-person classes, which had been offered only to high-needs students, for just a few weeks. On Tuesday, Philadelphia abandoned plans to reopen schools in November. Both cities, however, still allow some indoor dining. San Francisco, which paused indoor dining this week, never reopened its schools for in-person teaching, despite low transmission rates.
There are 1.1 million students and teachers in NYC schools, but although almost all city schools are open, the vast majority of parents have decided to keep their children learning from home for now, including significant numbers of Asian-American, hispanic and black families. Roughly 300,00 students are currently engaged in in-person education. Classrooms that once sat 30 children are now limited to 9.
Several people quoted by the NYT warned that closing schools again would be heading in the wrong direction. Uché Blackstock, an emergency medicine physician in the city and the founder of Advancing Health Equity, an organization focused on bias in health care, said NY should reconsider the 3% threshold: "We need to prioritize schools, and we need to think about innovative and safe ways to keep as many schools open as possible,” she said, pointing to research showing that schools were not “key drivers” of infections.
Dr. Blackstock said her own children are back in city classrooms and that their experience has been excellent. Even Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, which used the virus to try and squeeze more labor concessions from the city, admitted to the NYT that schools have proven surprisingly safe.
With all that in mind, maybe it is time to rethink that 3% threshold.