New York City school buildings will not reopen this academic year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Saturday, adding the nation’s largest school system to the long list of districts where in-person instruction has been canceled to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
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The city’s more than 1 million public students will continue to learn remotely at least through June 26, the scheduled end of the school year. By that time, about a third of the 2019-20 school year will have been spent at home, an unprecedented undertaking that could have long term consequences on academic achievement and social emotional well being for children.
The transition to remote learning continues to be a massive challenge for families and educators. While many students with computer access and internet connections have been logging on for virtual classes since March 23, tens of thousands still lack the resources to get online, despite the city’s best efforts to get devices into the hands of those in need. Others are working with printed packets that schools have mailed home. It’s likely that untold numbers of students are sitting idle without access to work or face other hurdles preventing them from keeping up with assignments.
New York has emerged as a disease hotspot, with nearly 200,000 COVID-19 cases in the state,and more than 7,000 succumbing to the illness, as of Friday.
Still, more than a dozen other states moved ahead of New York to pull the plug on the rest of the school year. Nearby Pennsylvania announced on Thursday that students would not be returning to class, when the state had about 18,000 cases.
New York City also lagged behind other large, urban school districts — including Los Angeles — in making the initial decision to shutter school buildings. Through mid-March, de Blasio had cited the enormous burden closures would place on families who rely on the schools for meals and child care, among them, health care workers on the frontlines of the disease.
His reluctance became a flashpoint within his administration, with one of the city’s top doctors threatening to quit if schools were not closed, the New York Times reported. By the time de Blasio ordered school buildings to close, New York had 329 confirmed cases, according to the report, in contrast to San Francisco, where schools shuttered when the city had 18 confirmed cases.
But facing a threatened sick-out by teachers, de Blasio finally handed down his decision to shutter buildings on March 15, a Sunday night, effective as of the following day. Without prior warning, some students had left their textbooks, calculators, and other school supplies in lockers the Friday before and haven’t been able to go back.
Teachers, however, were still required to report to buildings the following week for a three-day training on how to move instruction online. They traveled across the boroughs just as the virus’s explosion had made it impossible for the health department to continue publicly confirming whether there had been positive cases in school communities. That meant the system’s 75,000 educators were asked to go into their buildings without knowing whether or not they could have been exposed.
On Friday, the United Federation of Teachers announced that more than 40 current teachers and retirees had died due to the virus. The education department has refused to release the total number of cases within its own ranks, even as other public agencies, including the police department, have shared figures.
Teachers have called the lack of recognition a slap in the face, even as many city educators work harder than ever to adapt to remote learning. They took another blow when the entirety of spring break was canceled after the governor ordered schools to continue instruction during that time. Many had been banking on that time to catch their breath and plan out their approach for the long haul. Teachers also felt demoralized after the education department, citing privacy concerns, banned the conferencing platform Zoom, which many teachers had adopted for its ease of use.
Despite best efforts though, the pandemic is likely to have long-lasting effects on students. The unprecedented crisis makes it impossible to know how schoolchildren will ultimately fare, but research paints a grim picture. Extended school closures in Argentina followed students into adulthood, when they faced higher unemployment rates. Virtual schools, meanwhile,have a poor track record when it comes to students’ test scores, studies have shown.
The resulting financial devastation — already, almost a million New Yorkers have filed unemployment claims — will only compound the challenges. Research shows that slashing school budgets can lead to lower college attendance rates, and students’ whose parents have lost jobs could be at higher risk for being held back a grade.
Since it remains unclear when economic life will stabilize, researchers in Michigan have recommended extending the school year to mitigate potential effects of school closures.
Chalkbeat contributed to this article.
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