How the City Thinks About Closing Public Schools Due to Coronavirus: Local Councilmember Mark Levine Explains

By Carol Tannenhauser

What will happen if the coronavirus enters the New York City public school system with its nearly 1,800 schools and more than 1.1 million students? Is the city ready and how will it respond? WSR asked City Councilmember Mark Levine who represents District 7, including Manhattan Valley, Manhattanville, Morningside Heights, and Hamilton Heights. Levine is chairman of the Council’s health committee and sits on the education committee. He is also a public school parent.

West Side Rag:
How is the city approaching the question of when and if to close the public schools?

Mark Levine: This is a question they are evaluating and reevaluating constantly on an almost minute-by-minute basis. Health officials will order a closing if they deem the risk to be significant, but there’s also a cost to such a move. Hundreds of thousands of kids rely on the schools for free breakfast and lunch. They rely on access to nurses in the school buildings. Closing the schools would leave hundreds of thousands of parents with no childcare, forcing them to stay home from work. And remember that this is a disease, thank goodness, which essentially has not impacted younger children, and for the very few teens that have been impacted, the symptoms have been light.

WSR: What is the protocol if a public school child or staff member tests positive?

ML: The governor announced a new protocol today (Monday), which is: if there are any schools in which a child or staff member tests positive, the school will be closed for 24 hours for a deep cleaning and an assessment of a plan going forward. That hasn’t happened yet. There actually haven’t been any positive cases among either public school students or faculty.

WSR: Don’t you think that’s remarkable?

ML: Well, we’ve had, last count, 19 (it has since risen to 20) cases in New York City, and they skew towards older folks, mostly people over 50, with some exceptions. One assumes that as the numbers continue to grow, there will be someone from the school community who is a confirmed case. In the meantime, they’ve significantly expanded deep-cleaning protocols. The system-wide plan now is twice a week deep cleaning of the full buildings performed by custodial staff.

WSR: For all public schools?

ML: That’s right.

WSR: What if it shows up in one school? Does the whole system have to be closed or just that one school?

ML: What has been determined is that any school in which there is an individual case will be closed for 24 hours for a deep cleaning and an assessment of a plan going forward.

WSR: How are we really doing?

ML: This is a fast-moving situation and we should all be really cautious about predictions, because there are so many unknowns. I continue to have tremendous confidence in the city’s health department and its leaders — and in the state leadership and the collaboration between the state and city. I remain uneasy about federal failures and their impact on us locally. But, again, we’ve got a world-class city health department and great partners at the state level, and New Yorkers should take comfort in that.

WSR: Why are some private schools closing?

ML: A number of them have responded very aggressively to news of a suspected case or even a quarantine. I’m not going to pass judgement on the private institutions; they all have to make their own decisions. The city’s health experts simply haven’t deemed it recommended yet for our public institutions and I do have confidence in them.

WSR: What would you say to public school parents?

ML: I’m a public school parent and a CUNY parent, so I have as much personal skin in the game as anybody. I don’t say these things lightly. I understand that parents are anxious. I will report that, as of Friday, school attendance has been at or ahead of this time last year, so folks are listening to experts, they’re not panicking, and that’s what we would hope.”

NEWS, SCHOOLS | 25 comments | permalink
    1. JS says:

      Thank for this information. Happy to hear it hasn’t reached the NYC public schools yet.

      • dc says:

        For those who claim that it hasn’t reached the public schools yet, what about those who’ve tested positive but have little or no symptoms? With over a million students in public schools here, I would be surprised if there were no cases by now. My daughter’s private NYC college will be closed following spring break, I believe because they suspect that there will be these cases of people who are mildly ill but capable of infecting others.

    2. Carolina Jules says:

      Good information. Thank you!

    3. LK says:

      What’s not clear to me is why we have to be reactive all the time. Why do we have to sit and wait till someone gets sick inside the school and then close it for a day ( or more )? At that point the virus has likely spread. Also, councilman, the point is not that the kids are severely impacted, but that they do become carriers. So instead of having to deal with childcare ( if you cancel school ), their parents ( or grandparents ) will end up sick if you don’t manage this correctly.
      Don’t want to close the school – be proactive! Scan the kids as they come to school – send the ones with fever & cough home. Don’t have the kids change the classrooms ( each class stays in their class ). Have one ( or whatever reasonable number is ) class at a time go to cafeteria. Don’t just sit there – find people who know how to manage public health. Talk to people from the countries around the world/impacted. Have you applied any lessons that people learned the hard way in China, Italy?

      • Vanguard404 says:

        Lining up all the kids to be “scanned” would ba a tremendous logistical burden – imagine how much time checking, say, 500 kids for fevers or coughs at the start of the day, would take, even if all schools had nurses, which they don’t. Additionally, that lineup would put more kids in close proximity with others (not all in their classes) who could be infected, likely increasing the chance of passing the illness along.

        I agree that worrying about kids being carriers to higher-risk members of households is a concern, but apart from everyone preemptively self-quarantining (and having to trust that they really do it), I’m not sure how you can protect people beyond keeping the kid from up-close contact with the seniors, etc.

        It’s going to get worse before it gets better, for sure.

        • LK says:

          True – logistics is difficult. But countries/cities around the world doing some/all of these things. That’s why I said – our mayor & co should get public health involved and talk to folks from around the world. There is not much time they have if any. Stupid decisions such as not cancelling St. Patrick’s Day Parade show ignorance & neglect on behalf of our mayor. This is a letter from an itallian doctor published by NY Post:

          Do you have a reason to believe that things would be better here? Aggressive measures should be taken fast.

    4. CG says:

      I have two children and one attends a private school, while the other child attends a public school. I appreciate the tone of this article and the reasonable approach. The private schools, in my opinion, have reacted out of privilege and paranoia. We just learned that my child’s school is closing for the rest of the week. No member of the community has been exposed or diagnosed. My child is off now for the next three weeks due to spring break. They also told the parent community that we need to be prepared for distance learning after spring break. And not once did the school acknowledge the strain on families that have working parents and cannot afford additional help. My child will need to apply to high school soon and I’m hoping my child will be accepted to a public school.

    5. TM says:

      13 countries have shut down their school systems and more are likely to follow. Although I appreciate our city’s cautious approach to school closures, I also find it disingenuous that present messaging isn’t setting people’s expectations about what long-term closures may look like.

      I work across many NYC schools. The press and parents need to start asking Mr. Levine and other city government officials some tougher questions about resources. Sourcing disinfectant alone is already becoming a major problem for school districts, and that challenge will only worsen as less impacted school districts across the country begin to encounter community spread of the virus.

      Staffing schools could quickly turn into a major obstacle. We already have far too many schools without nurses – what the city’s timeline for full nurse staffing? What is the plan for absent nurses? What do schools do without a medical provider on-site to assess staff and students?

      And what’s the plan for staffing schools with high teacher and administrator absence rates? How many reserve teachers are available for coverages? How many live in counties and towns outside the 5 boroughs, which may have their own quarantines or restrictions on movement in the future?

      If you and your family do not have a plan for a long-term school closure, now’s the time to determine one. I say this not to cause alarm, but because I know how hard it is to run a school even under the best circumstances.

    6. Janice Barandes says:

      Based on what’s happening in Italy, I think this is a mistake since there is no real testing going on and people can be asymptomatic and infected.

    7. Scott says:

      Am I reading this correctly? Students rely on public schools for their breakfast?

      Are their parent(s) unable to assemble a couple of eggs on a piece of toast?

      If so, shouldn’t child protective services get involved?

      • LK says:

        There is a very large homeless population in NYC schools and, in general, a significant number of students from families below the poverty line. Those kids rely on public schools for breakfast and lunch. There is not much CPS can do. Do you want to take those kids away from families and provide the kids with shelter too? All of that is not an excuse for complacency with corona virus…

        • NYC Teacher says:

          Parents can get “eggs on toast” together for a day or a week but beyond that it becomes a hardship. More than 70% of NYC children rely on school lunch and breakfast. I teach these kids and I assure you it is vital resource. These kids don’t bitch and moan about school
          lunch; they eat every bite. Closing schools may become necessary but it would be an absolute catastrophe for tens of thousands of families and I hope it can somehow
          be avoided.

      • UWSMillenial says:

        Wow, Scott. Really showing some ignorance, and what a terrible, condescending tone.

        Please, be better.

      • Leon says:

        Your privilege is showing. See you for drinks at the Metropolitan Club before the Dalton fundraiser then we can helicopter out east for the weekend to hobnob with Bitsy and Thurston and the rest of our hedge fund friends from Choate and Yale?

      • JAG says:

        Literally the most tone deaf comment I’ve ever read on here.

      • Lacey Sheridan says:

        The NYC public school provide both breakfast and lunch for many, many students. For most of those, they are the best balanced meals of the day. Parents may or may not be feeding their kids, but the schools definitely do. We have urgent situations requiring the intervention of ACS; meals aren’t one of them.

      • Stace says:

        @Scott I believe that what they are implying is that the parents are unable to afford to feed their kids if they stay at home due to financial hardship versus being lazy . On average, 75% of the nyc school kids are low income

    8. Rafael Mumme says:

      One way to slow down the progression of this virus is to slow down the flow of people. That changes the probability of people getting infected and reduces the exponential growth giving health care providers time to treat who is sick. It seems that kids don’t have complications with the virus but they can transmit it quickly to parents and care givers. Optional attendance on public schools could be an alternative to closing them, which I think will have to be done anyway at some point.

    9. Jay zanysc says:

      Please, wake up!! Look at what happened in Wuhan, China and what’s happening in Italy now. We are only a couple of weeks away from that!

      And have ever these people think about young students are virus carriers. They will pass the virus to each other and infect their parents and grand-parents! A simple fact like this is being simply ignored.

      Please, take actions, but not making excuses!!

      • Cici says:

        We should stop sleeping. Wake up America !!
        The schools would have to close anyway! What do people do over the summer?

    10. Cyn says:

      CUNY closed, right. Why?

    11. Shane says:

      I think the Mayor and the Chancellor are misstepping by not closing Public Schools. Not closing for the mere purpose of providing meals at the risk of one of our most vulnerable population is not good governance. We cannot keep operating defensively, we have to make proactive decisions to close, properly disinfect and ensure that our places of learning is suitable and adequate in protecting our children. We close for snow storms that have not proven to cause any fatality, but stay open at the risk of a communicable disease that can be fatal. This seems ill advised and just plain non sensical.

    12. BB says:

      Its alarming to hear that keeping schools open in light of the highly transmittable Covid-19 virus, the city’s concern is not focused on education but instead childcare/babysitting. Families should not be penalized for keeping students out of school with home based learning plans/google classroom curriculums to maintain their education.
      There is high anxiety amongst the kids at school and they are not focused on learning.
      Attendance is scrutinized in the middle school and high school process and is being leveraged against the better judgement of parents by the doe to keep students in attendance for motives other than education.

    13. William Solomon says:

      What do these same parents do for childcare during school break and summer vacation?