NEW YORK — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans Saturday to keep the nation’s largest public school system shuttered through the academic year as he embraces increasingly aggressive measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
At least that was the idea.
A decision affecting the lives of millions of New Yorkers became another political feud between de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who stepped on the mayor’s message only hours later.
De Blasio said the call to not to reopen schools for the city’s 1.1 million students was made following a Friday evening conversation with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“Lord knows having to tell you that we cannot bring our schools back for the remainder of this school year is painful, but I can also tell you it’s the right thing to do. It clearly will help us save lives,” de Blasio declared from his daily televised briefing in City Hall.
But two hours later, like clockwork, Cuomo, whose emergency powers allow him to supersede those of local authorities, said it’s not the mayor’s call.
“There has been no decision on schools,” he told reporters during his own briefing in Albany.
Cuomo called the mayor’s announcement an “opinion,” and said he will take it into account alongside input from other officials in the region, such as Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.
He also pushed back on de Blasio’s earlier statements that some businesses could reopen in May. Despite glimmers of hope — the number of desperately ill New Yorkers is beginning to plateau — Cuomo said it’s too early to make any broad statements or become less vigilant about social distancing.
“I reject any elected official or any expert who says ‘I can tell you what’s going to happen four weeks from today,’” he said. “I accept it, I hear it, but I’m not prepared to act on it.”
Cuomo said any decision on how long both businesses and schools will remain closed should come from his office and must be “at a minimum for the metropolitan area, hopefully statewide, and ideally regionally with Connecticut and New Jersey.”
Education groups and school officials are broadly prepared to forfeit the rest of the school year, but most say they’re simply awaiting state orders and could see a scenario working out either way.
When asked when the dissonance between his statements and de Blasio’s will be cleared up for New York City parents, Cuomo said it was done.
“We just clarified it,” he said.
De Blasio’s spokesperson, Freddi Goldstein, said the mayor’s team made the Cuomo administration aware Saturday morning of their intention to announce school closures through June.
“The Governor’s reaction to us keeping schools closed is reminiscent of how he reacted when the Mayor called for a shelter in place. We were right then and we’re right now,” she tweeted after the governor’s remarks. “Schools will remain closed, just like how we eventually — days later — moved to a shelter in place model.”
De Blasio has control over the city’s school system through powers renewed every few years in Albany, and said on Saturday the state has already issued one waiver for the 180-day in-school requirement. “We’re going to work with the state to continue that waiver,” he added.
“We got zero heads up this was what was being announced today,” a Cuomo administration official said of de Blasio’s announcement.
The official said the mayor’s office called shortly before the governor’s press conference asking to discuss an unspecified issue.
De Blasio and his team of health and education officials have been contemplating whether to reopen the city’s roughly 1,800 schools before the school year ends in June, and concluded it would only exacerbate the spread of Covid-19, which has already claimed 5,429 lives in the city.
“The most important mission for all of us in New York City and all of us in this country is to end this crisis, to not let it reassert, and keeping the NYC public schools closed is a way to contribute to finally beating back the coronavirus,” the mayor said.
Since schools closed March 16, the de Blasio administration has been grappling with ensuring low-income students are equipped with necessary equipment and technology to carry on without deepening long-established gulfs in academic success between the rich and poor.
“It’s a challenge, it’s there. It’s a factor. Certain families are having problems with Wi-Fi,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said.
To that end, he said, teachers have been mailing programs to students who do not have adequate internet access and following up with phone calls.
The city has also been sending iPads and other devices to students who need them, though Apple cannot fill its orders fast enough, Mulgrew said.
The mayor promised the city would send the necessary equipment to 240,000 students by the end of April.
“We now need to get devices distributed on a very fast pace,” he said. “And we will do that. I’ve said to the chancellor, whatever it takes, the entire city government will assist to make sure this happens.”
Leonie Haimson, executive director of the organization Class Size Matters, expressed doubt about students being adequately supplied with iPads and internet access.
“More importantly, the research overwhelmingly shows that even if students have equal technology and internet access, those who are economically disadvantaged, who are English language learners or have special needs do far worse with online learning, because they need more in-person feedback & support from their teachers,” Haimson added in an email Saturday morning. “This means that the move to remote learning this year will further WIDEN the achievement gap.”