NEW YORK — In a bruising setback to the city’s recovery, the country’s largest school system will shut down in-person learning temporarily Thursday as the city hit a 7-day, 3 percent positivity rate for the coronavirus — a level of infection not seen for months in a city that was once the national epicenter of the pandemic.
Mayor Bill de Blasio exacted a hard won victory in bringing some 300,000 kids back to school in September — one of the more successful endeavors by the administration since the onset of the pandemic. But amid reluctance from the teachers union, the city agreed to the 3 percent benchmark to close all schools, despite a much lower rate of infection among schools.
Restaurants and in-person retail remain open under state-mandated restrictions.
The mayor made the announcement via social media Wednesday, while Gov. Andrew Cuomo was conducting a combative press conference in Albany and refused to answer questions on whether city schools would be open Thursday.
“New York City has reached the 3% testing positivity 7-day average threshold,” de Blasio said in a tweet. “Unfortunately, this means public school buildings will be closed as of tomorrow, Thursday Nov. 19, out of an abundance of caution. We must fight back the second wave of COVID-19.”
In an email to principals, first reported by The New York Times, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said schools have seen a Covid-19 positivity rate of only 0.19 percent out of more than 120,000 students and staff tested but that the city established a 3 percent threshold and was sticking to it.
He said certain staff such as school safety agents, custodians, skilled tradespeople and school food employees and others will be required to be onsite at Department of Education buildings. Other school-based staff members will have access to their school building for delivery and pickup and distribution of devices and other learning materials.
Community-based early childhood programs, family and child care programs and Learning Bridge sites will remain open.
Last week as the city’s seven-day average positivity rate reached closer to 3 percent de Blasio and Carranza instructed parents and educators to begin preparing for closures.
Parents, teachers, doctors and other city officials voiced frustration recently with the prospect of closing schools, citing the low transmission rates in schools so far as well as the widespread disruption involved in closing schools.
“Children are not particularly the sources of large community outbreaks. Schools are not large superspreaders, as far as we know,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia and once an informal adviser to the mayor, in a recent interview. “Every day of disruption of education, especially children who live in economically fragile situations, who are not going to great schools to begin with … I am really concerned about loss of continuity in education for those high-risk kids.”
In the spring, as the coronavirus made its first deadly march through the city, the de Blasio administration maintained closing the school system was an absolute last resort, insisting that in-person learning was the best option, especially for low-income families and vulnerable students.
But following pressure from teachers and eventually, the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers union, de Blasio ultimately relented and closed the school system.
De Blasio has recently denied accusations he was bowing to political pressure by holding fast to the 3 percent cutoff.
“The decision we made was made with our health care leadership and not with the unions at all,” the mayor said in a radio interview Friday. “I mean, literally the three percent decision, I remember vividly the meeting in which we decided it. It was not a proposal from the unions. It was not a collective bargaining matter.”
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, didn’t confirm or deny the the union was pressuring the city to close schools, but praised the mayor’s decision last week.
“I mean, people like to look into things,” Mulgrew said in a recent interview. “We have enough craziness going on right now, to say the least in this country… it was attested to by the city of New York that they would follow this plan. He’s following the plan he submitted and was approved. So yes, the mayor’s doing what he said he was gonna do. That’s the right thing.”
The union did not immediately provide comment on Thursday’s announcement.
Dr. Uché Blackstock, an emergency medicine physician and Brooklyn resident who has a 3-year-old son in prekindergarten and a 5-year-old son in first grade, both at P.S. 11, said her children have been in person five days a week since September and that it’s been going “incredibly well.”
But she said the mayor has “backed himself into a corner with the teachers union.”
“I think that he’s balancing these political pressures but unfortunately our children are going to suffer as a result,” Blackstock said.
She also said the wavering and back-and-forth by the mayor undermined parental trust and said messaging around the safety of schools could have been better.
“I think that if the DOE and the mayor had really laid out clearly this is how we’re gonna protect your children, right, this is how, this is the benefit of your children being in school versus learning remotely, then we probably would have had more children enrolled for in-person learning but that wasn’t done and it wasn’t done well,” she said.
Amanda Eisenberg contributed reporting.