Bill de Blasio set up NYC kids for needless school closures

Imagine a small grease fire flares up on your stove. Do you grab the fire extinguisher from under the sink — or call the fire department and have firefighters bombard the place with water, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage? Seems like a no-brainer. And yet when it comes to COVID in our city schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio chose the second option.

As we begin a third pandemic-impacted year, here is what we know. International and local data showed that schools could be reopened safely even before vaccines were available. School staff have been eligible for the vaccine since January and are required to have their first shot in almost all cases by Sept. 27.

Most important, we know that school closures were profoundly detrimental to kids, particularly the most vulnerable. Childhood obesity and diabetes increased during the pandemic, and the learning of already-marginalized students suffered greatly. Students attending predominantly black and Hispanic schools were six months behind where they would normally be in math; students attending schools where the average household income was less than $25,000 annually were seven months behind.

At the public charter school I cofounded, you can see every day what it means for students to be back in person. You can see it as they chat with their friends or playfully tease their teachers. There is a newfound appreciation for what it means to interact face-to-face — or at least mask-to-mask.

Fortunately, New York City belatedly took steps Monday to align its quarantine policy with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, backing off its initial position, which was to shut down entire classrooms in the event of one positive case. Under the old mandate, all unvaccinated students — which, obviously, includes all elementary schoolers — would have to quarantine for 10 days in the event of a positive case. Now, those students can remain in school as long as the masking, distance and ventilation required by Gotham authorities are in place.

A girl passes a "Welcome Back to School" sign as she arrives for the first day of class at Brooklyn's PS 245 elementary school, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021,
A girl arrives for the first day of class at Brooklyn’s PS 245 elementary school, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

This is progress but insufficient.

Many Big Apple schools are too crowded to maintain meaningful social distancing. And healthy kids can still be forced, unnecessarily, into remote learning.

In the most galling example, PS 79 in East Harlem was closed for 10 days because 19 staff members tested positive for COVID. It is unclear how many of those staff were vaccinated, though it would be a helluva coincidence if they were all breakthrough cases. But what’s clear is that 250 young people in a school that serves “students with autism, intellectual disabilities or multiple challenges” will now be denied needed in-person learning for a fortnight.

In crowded schools or in cases like PS 79, lots of healthy young children will be stuck at home, isolated from friends, teachers and normalcy. Their parents will either have to arrange childcare or stay home from work. The burden will fall disproportionately on women and on lower-income parents who don’t have flexible working conditions. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems like the sort of thing a mayor who professes to be “equity”-focused would want to avoid.

A general view of a student wearing a face mask during the coronavirus pandemic or COVID-19 pandemic for the third week of classes at Roosevelt Elementary School in Hawthorne, NJ on September 15, 2021
Students wear face masks for the third week of classes at Roosevelt Elementary School in Hawthorne, NJ on September 15, 2021.
Christopher Sadowski

A better alternative exists. In Massachusetts and Utah, localities are adopting a policy called test-to-stay. Dr. Michael Mina of the Harvard School of Public Health explained this process thusly: “Instead of having everyone quarantine, you use a simple, at-home, rapid test before school, and you do that each day they would otherwise be quarantining.” Those who test positive stay home; negatives can come to class; spread is contained; healthy kids keep learning.

Yet while districts have been exploring test-to-stay possibilities for months, de Blasio seemed to indicate during his weekly interview with Brian Lehrer on Sept. 17 that he was hearing of it for the first time. It’s pretty remarkable that the man with control over the nation’s largest school system has just heard of this proposal, but maybe he was too busy planning out his quixotic gubernatorial bid and crushing dirt bikes. Priorities, people.

De Blasio may not feel the urgency of keeping kids in school, but parents and other education leaders do. There is no reason to keep healthy kids at home. They have been out of school for far too long. Let’s implement test-to-stay and get them back in, pronto.

Arthur Samuels is the cofounder and co-executive director of MESA Charter High School in Brooklyn.

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