Mayor de Blasio’s decision to close the city’s public schools to in-person learning and go to the fully remote model for who knows how long is a tragic surrender in the city’s fight against the coronavirus.
It’s true that the majority of students already were getting online instruction only. But for the hundreds of thousands whose families decided the vast benefits of in-person learning outweighed the small risk of catching Covid-19 in school, de Blasio’s ruling is tragic.
And it’s one that is not at all borne out by the science. It is instead born out of fear, and perhaps politics. De Blasio set an arbitrary threshold of 3 percent positivity in community virus test rates, over a seven-day period, as the trigger to close the schools. No authority makes this the magic number. The state’s guidance under Gov. Cuomo is for schools to open if the rate is below 9 percent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in its school Covid recommendations, recognizes 3 percent as the top level for the “lowest risk” of transmission, but labels the 3 to 5 percent range as “low risk” — and doesn’t even say the risk needs to be low for schools to be open. Many factors come into play.
Yet de Blasio is reversing one of his most important and most valuable Covid policies — offering some days of in-person learning to students who want it — because the city’s average positive test rate for the last week is above 3 percent. Meanwhile the positivity rate within the schools themselves, for students and staff, is 0.23 percent, less than one-tenth the rate for all of society. What that demonstrates, if anything, is that it’s not the schools where the virus is being spread around. That’s been known for some time. Children are not driving this disease. As the World Health Organization put it after studying the disease in schools, “In most infections or COVID-19 cases reported in children, infection was acquired at home,” and “Early modelling studies suggested that closing schools reduced community transmission less than other social distancing interventions.”
It’s the in-school transmission rate that should concern us and determine whether buildings are shuttered. Why should schools close when their positivity rates are so low compared to the city’s overall? At least in school, somewhat random testing is being conducted. Those getting tested in the general community are self-selecting. The overall positivity rates actually aren’t science at all. Yet they’re driving policy — a policy that will harm children’s education and social development and further strain family relations and financial stability. The costs of closing schools far outweigh the benefits, whatever those are.
Surprisingly, Cuomo is allowing this to go on. It’s hard to see why, unless he believes it’s to his political advantage to let de Blasio take all the heat. Again and again throughout the virus crisis, Cuomo has made clear that he’s the one who really wields the power, to open and close schools, to decide how many people can fit in a restaurant, to determine what is food and what is just a snack in a tavern, to specify how many may gather at the Thanksgiving table. Yet he didn’t follow de Blasio’s announcement with one of his usual “That’s his opinion; I’ll decide” statements. Instead he was silent until asked about the closures by reporters, and then he blew up at them. It’s too bad; this is one of those times when his overriding de Blasio could have saved the day.
The mayor insists the school shutdown is temporary, “a setback we will overcome.” Yeah, sure. If you thought it was hard to open schools in the first place, imagine how it will be after this. We hope he’s right. But the smart money is on schools staying shut through December at least. Let’s hope a vaccine can save the spring semester. Our leaders won’t.