New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio’s press conference on Friday came on the heels of an extremely low attendance day in schools run by the NYC Department of Education. Hundreds of thousands of parents kept their children at home fearing exposure to the coronavirus.
De Blasio used the rhetoric of New Yorkers being “the toughest people in the world” to prep the city for his announcements: suck it up, folks; you all need to learn to deal with “reality.” He also wanted to make sure everyone realizes how difficult his job is, at one point telling a reporter, “I don’t know how to explain this to a civilian.”
About an hour before the press conference, USA Today reported: “At least a dozen states and a number of large urban school districts — including Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest — are shutting down all K-12 schools as part of a sweeping attempt to contain the spread of the coronavirus… Major metropolitan districts in Atlanta, Denver, San Francisco, San Diego, Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas, have also shuttered.” Also closed are the vast majority of private and Catholic schools in New York City and the majority of colleges.
Despite public schools remaining open, many of the parents of students enrolled — the vast majority of whom could never even dream of sending their kids to the private schools that have already closed for the safety of their students — were concerned enough about the spread of the virus that they kept their children home, in some cases skipping work or making alternate arrangements. This situation resulted in 68% attendance across New York City public K-12 schools on Friday, down from 89% on Monday (which the mayor identified as roughly average). Parents have grounds for their concerns: underfunded schools are crowded with class sizes over the legally mandated limits and there is a woefully inaccessible testing procedure and insufficient information regarding Covid-19.
Teachers, too, are frustrated and fear for their own health and that of their family members, resenting the implication that schools are nothing more than holding pens for kids to be supervised during the work day. Citing long commutes on crowded subways and exposure to up to 38 students in a small classroom, workers are facing a situation in which they risk carrying the virus to elderly family members and their own small children.
And as of now, teachers — even any who may have a confirmed case of the virus — will lose all sick days they spend in quarantine or treatment, even if that means they will start the next school year owing sick leave time. This system obviously disincentivizes teachers from self-quarantine should they feel ill, because they may be concerned about disciplinary action being taken next school year should they need a sick day and have a negative leave balance. Teachers do not want to put their students at risk, but there is a very real economic incentive to forgo caution. It is incredibly dangerous to set up such a system for any workers who spend their days in small spaces with so many other people.
The mayor communicated his condescension towards the NYC parents who kept their children home. He called this “extraordinary concern,” and said that he felt parents are “acclimating to the new reality,” but that he thinks “We will see an evolutionary pattern here… I think there’s a shock right now.”
A Tale of Two Quarantines
But De Blasio still had to justify why, in a city in which nearly all private schools and public colleges have shut down, he felt it was important for New York City public schools to stay open. Here, he pivoted from the earlier explanations he had given.
Earlier in the week, De Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo had insisted that closing schools would hurt children and their families. On Thursday, De Blasio said, “Of course safety first, but they depend on the schools, they are a safe place for their kids and by the way, they want their kids to keep getting educated.”
But this reasoning had too many holes at a time when the city is taking so many other precautions to ensure the safety of others. The Mayor’s explanation of why parents are keeping their children home — a simple overreaction — doesn’t align with any of the other measures the city and state are taking, among them a part of Governor Cuomo’s State of Emergency provisions that included banning all gatherings of more than 500 people (including all Broadway shows.)
So while directives are being made for the sake of the health and wellbeing of New Yorkers, neither Cuomo nor De Blasio are willing to close down the schools, even in the face of the recommendations of scientists and infectious disease experts that they do so. Theatergoers must be protected from the virus for the three hours of a show, but parents are wrong to worry about their children being crowded into classrooms for an entire school day? Those are some pretty mixed messages.
And so, during Friday’s press conference, De Blasio dropped all pretense and stopped trying to convince people that the decision to keep schools open has anything to do with meeting the needs of children. Not once did he discuss the issues of loss of education or instructional hours. He did not mention providing food or medical care at schools. In fact, the entirety of his “emergency measures” for schools were a one-day closure of any school in which a case of COVID-19 had been confirmed; serving breakfasts and lunches in classrooms in order to decrease the time students spend crowded together — this despite the fact that the classrooms themselves are overcrowded — and “mov[ing] phys-ed activities outdoors.”
De Blasio made it clear that the reason schools must remain open is the fact that schools operate largely as government daycare for workers, allowing them to work more hours. The CDC agrees and supports this idea, citing “[the] disproportionate impact of children being out of school whose parents/family members are hourly and low-wage workers.“
The mayor talked about the need for people to “go on about their lives,” and said, “We want people going to work, earning their livelihood.” He then said there are three “pillars” he intends to maintain in the face of the crisis: schools, mass transit, and the health care system, all of which he said will help the city function during the coronavirus crisis. In this, he identified schools as being of use to the city instead of being an educational provision for its children. The message is clear: schools are needed in lieu of providing safe childcare for low-income families during the outbreak. The fact that children and teachers will be in the close proximity avoided elsewhere — both rendering them vulnerable to infection and contributing to communal spread — is not of importance.
Warehousing Students Is Nothing New
This aligns with the more general neglect of education in NYC public schools, which enroll mostly low-income children of color. The NYC school system has long been one of the most segregated in the country. And in these lower-income schools, it’s clear that control, not education, has been the priority for years.
This is made most obvious by the heavy presence of police in the schools. It has been less than a year since the city gave into public pressure to lower the level of NYPD involvement at public schools, a policy that has contributed to the criminalization of young students of color for years. This is part of the school-to-prison pipeline, defined by the ACLU as “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” Any system that would do this is not one interested in educating children — at least not low-income children of color.
Raising the specter of bands of low-income children roaming the city, De Blasio said he has a “strong belief that if the schools weren’t open, that children would end up going all over their buildings, their communities, looking for something to do… You would not see a pristine quarantine situation; you would see the real lives of kids play out. And that comes with some real challenges of its own… What would happen if we let NYC school kids out for three months?” He cited the CDC recommendations against school closures — one that bases its recommendations against school closures on the limited data available about the spread of COVID-19 — and said, “Basically, quarantines are pointless. Unsupervised kids create a host of new challenges.”
De Blasio obviously has a clear understanding of this situation of “the real lives of kids,” and has always campaigned on his “Tale of Two Cities” narrative, describing the inequality he would work to solve. But in this press conference, he made it clear that the city believes the purpose of schools — certainly their purpose during a crisis — is to warehouse children purely for supervision purposes.
The mayor is insisting on this false choice: either keep schools open and expose children to a virus that the city’s wealthiest kids are (correctly) being insulated from, or leave families without childcare and food.
Other communities have managed to both close schools and make some provisions for children. During its two-week closure, Chicago public schools “will provide boxes of free food containing three days of breakfast and lunch for each student.” The same is happening in schools across Washington State, including Seattle public schools. And a spokesperson for the NYC DOE was quoted as stating that “if a school is closed for 24 hours, we’re prepared to serve grab-and-go breakfast and lunch for any student who wants it.”
But in the wealthiest city in the country, the economy comes first.
UFT: “Let’s Agree to Disagree”
To bolster the importance of schools remaining open for the purposes of child care, De Blasio made a show of holding up a hard copy of a letter from SEIU 1199, stating that the health care union’s members were asking that schools remain open so that they could continue to work. This letter said, “Closing New York City’s public schools with no care plan for these children would place a dire strain on our social infrastructure by reducing the healthcare workforce, and possibly halting the gains being made to help curb the spread of COVID-19. This would undoubtedly pose an even greater danger to New York’s families.”
He also stated very clearly that some city agencies will be given any provisions they deem necessary, saying: “Anything the NYPD needs, they will get.” And when asked for a response to the request by COBA, the NYC prison guard’s union, to prohibit visitation of prisoners’ families, on the grounds that prisons are crowded and the virus is likely to spread to guards and then their family, De Blasio nodded gravely, called it “a valid concern,” and said the city would discuss it. (A few hours later, the federal government announced it is halting family visitation in all federal prisons.)
Although De Blasio cited the various other unions he supports, no mention was made of the dangers the concentration of students poses to NYC teachers at all. As for the teacher’s union, De Blasio seemed intent on communicating that he had the UFT under control. “We had a very good positive meeting today,” De Blasio said about Mulgrew. “Even though we have some differences on the approach, we’re going to work together.”
Mulgrew, it seems, is either unwilling or unable to even hint at mobilizing his own members. In a statement to members, Mulgrew stated, “I have met with the Mayor and outlined our reasons for urging a shutdown. He believes the schools should stay open, though he has agreed to a number of additional safeguards and accommodations. In the end, we have decided to respectfully disagree.”
So while the PBA and COBA — the armed law enforcement required to keep the public, especially communities of color, under control — are making demands, De Blasio is only too happy to meet. Teachers, however, are not a priority, and the UFT is so far totally unwilling to mobilize teachers in any way, shape, or form to demand any school closures, even given the lack of precautions for schools with confirmed cases of the virus.
But this lack of concern for teachers is due to the fact that the health of the city’s poorest children is secondary to the health of its economy. Instead of attempting to provide services for workers and their families, the city is, predictably, focused on the health of the economy of New York City.
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