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‘An incredibly traumatic 24 hours’: New York City school closures set off new round of infighting

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It is a demoralizing setback for a city that slowly re-opened after seeing more than 24,000 pandemic deaths and now faces a deadly winter surge of new Covid-19 infections. The news was delivered to principals by the city’s schools chancellor at around 2 p.m. on Wednesday after hours of uncertainty, and set off a scramble among parents juggling childcare needs and work responsibilities.

The announcement marked another frustrating chapter for many New Yorkers, who have been repeatedly caught in the tumult of a long-running feud between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo — one that flared up during the early days of the pandemic in March, when they talked past each other and delivered contradictory messages over school closures and stay-at-home orders. On Wednesday, the mayor and governor were in touch directly during the day and their staffers kept close contact, sources from the state and a City Hall source told CNN. And yet, Cuomo appeared to be taken by surprise when informed of de Blasio’s decision to shift to all-remote learning by a reporter during a combative mid-afternoon press conference.

Part of the public confusion — and private differences — centered on how the city and state measure coronavirus test positivity rates. Some nine months into the pandemic, they are still employing different metrics to settle some of the most pressing issues facing New Yorkers.

By the city’s count, the seven-day average positivity rate reached precisely 3% on Wednesday, triggering a shutdown of in-person learning for an estimated 300,000 students. De Blasio, during his own press conference, which had been delayed for five hours and did not begin until after 3 p.m., said his office had “spent some time confirming it, and double checking” its numbers before sending out directives to the schools.

Schools are closed but restaurants are open

Frustration over the process and timing of the shutdown bubbled over almost immediately after the mayor, following hours of uncertainty, tweeted out his decision. That anger was compounded by the fact that city restaurants, bars and gyms — the places most experts say the virus is most apt to spread — remain open at limited capacities in accordance with guidelines set by the state.

“Families, teachers have gone through an incredibly traumatic 24 hours and we haven’t taken the critical public health measures that we need,” New York City Councilman Mark Levine, the chair of the council’s health committee, told CNN on Thursday. “And what it all boils down to is: today in New York City a kid cannot learn in their classroom. But they can have a meal at indoor dining.”

In a statement on Wednesday, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams slammed the mayor and governor, saying a distressed city was being pushed to its psychic brink by “executives governing by haphazard tweets and combative press conferences.”

“Whether to close schools amid an increase in COVID-19 cases was a question of science and of health,” Williams said. “Whether to order that closure with less than sixteen hours before it would be enforced and upend the lives of people across the city is a question of common sense and sound management, neither of which has been seen today or throughout much of this pandemic.”

While New York City parents waited on the mayor, Cuomo lashed out at reporters when asked if he was considering whether to close the city’s schools.

“The mayor said 3%. If the schools hit 3% in the city, I expect the mayor — who has said 57 times if they hit 3% we will close them — will close them,” Cuomo said.

Only minutes before, the governor told reporters that, according to the state’s numbers, the city’s seven-day rate was 2.5%.

“The schools are open,” Cuomo said at exactly 2 p.m., when asked by a reporter if closures were imminent. “By state law.”

But less than five minutes later, at 2:04 p.m., New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza emailed educators at the Department of Education to inform them all public school buildings would be closed, effective Thursday, and to begin the transition to strictly online learning. Parents didn’t learn about the decision until 2:19 p.m., when de Blasio tweeted the news. The Department of Education did the same a minute later, and Carranza followed suit just before 2:30 p.m.

As Cuomo left his press conference, a reporter informed him that — contrary to what he’d just said — de Blasio had just announced that school closures would begin the next day.

“So, the mayor’s saying it hit 3%?” Cuomo asked.

Despite the theatrics, both sides insist that they had kept in touch throughout the day. What had not been resolved during those morning and noontime conversations, it became apparent, was how the city would proceed given the differing sets of statistics. Cuomo was already sitting down for his meeting with reporters when de Blasio’s decision was made public.

At the mayor’s press conference, which was originally slated to begin at 10 a.m. but actually started just after 3 p.m., de Blasio said he’d had a “number of conversations” with Cuomo and that their teams had been in close contact. A state official confirmed to CNN that the state and city were talking “all day.”

Different metrics for city and state

The state official singled out the differing city and state standards of measurement as a key factor in this latest round of muddled messaging.

“Their numbers have always been different than ours,” the state official said.

New York State calculates the rate based on the test results that come in on a given day. New York City calculates its rate based on tests that were given that day — and test results are often delayed, the official said. An official at City Hall argued that the city’s measurements provide a closer reflection of the real-time numbers.

Cuomo has not publicly criticized de Blasio’s decision, but he needled the mayor in an interview later Wednesday afternoon after his press conference on WAMC radio, telling host Alan Chartock that while the mayor “is totally within his prerogative” shut down the schools, he believes the parameters were out of whack.

“When he set the 3(% rate) it sounded fine,” Cuomo told Chartock. “In retrospect, it turned out that it was low.”

Cuomo then pointed to infection rates in the schools, which have been below 1% — though fewer than half of students’ parents and guardians had signed off to allow their children to be tested.

“Schools right now are safer than kids on the street in a high infection community,” Cuomo said. “The schools often have a lower infection rate than the surrounding community. So my preference is always keep the schools open, unless there was a high infection rate — which there’s not.”

The decision to close schools frustrated many New Yorkers, who had come to view the re-opening as a notable success in a year of crushing tragedy. Even as the overall city infection rate has risen, worries over a rash of classroom outbreaks never materialized. The news of the closure rippled through parent and educator communities. One elementary school teacher in Brooklyn expressed frustration that the call to close schools came after classes were dismissed, and said that because of the uncertainty over whether schools would go remote, her children had left their textbooks at in the building.

“They have their iPads and we teach the lesson but refer back to their physical textbooks because, well, they’re 10 and technology is challenging,” the teacher said. “But because of the whole back-and-forth this week, their texts are in school.”

Carranza, speaking at the mayor’s press conference, sought to assure teachers and parents that principals and staff would work with them to find “windows of time” to pick up those materials over the coming days.

The timing of the announcement also left hundreds of thousands of parents with only a few hours to make childcare arrangements. Asked when schools might re-open, de Blasio pointed to “the week after Thanksgiving” as the “earliest” possible date, but that the city and state had not yet worked through the guidelines, which he hoped would be hashed out by the end of the week.

“I’m not yet able to say that will be then or a point after but we have real work to do, which I think we can do quickly, to finish those standards and then put together the action plan to make them come to pass,” de Blasio said. “Again, heavy emphasis on testing, we are going to be deploying a lot of our testing capacity toward the schools under this new model, even much more than we’ve done previously.”

Coronavirus positivity rates had been ticking up across the city and state over the past several weeks, and the city on Friday sent a note to parents warning of potential closings. Ultimately, de Blasio — using authority granted to him by Cuomo — decided to follow through on an agreement struck with the United Federation of Teachers, which was the product of tense negotiations and the threat of a strike by educators concerned over in-school safety.

The union’s president, Michael Mulgrew, released a brief statement following the announcements.

“Since the three percent rate has been reached, education will continue but all students will be learning remotely,” Mulgrew said. “Now it’s the job of all New Yorkers to maintain social distance, wear masks and take all other steps to substantially lower the infection rate so school buildings can re-open for in-person instruction.”

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