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Reopening Schools in the Former Epicenter of a Pandemic

By Milo Mandelli-Valla ’24

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (Photo Credit: CNBC)
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (Photo Credit: CNBC)

COVID-19 cases jumped from 43 to 1,000 in one week in New York City. A week later, there were 5,100 cases. Another week later, there were 8,000 cases. That was the reality in March when New York City became the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of cases spiked through mid-April when they began to plateau and ultimately declined. As cases continue to decline, New Yorkers are still experiencing restrictions being lifted.

As restrictions are lifted, people are returning to work. Returning to work is a challenge, though, as many parents say they cannot leave their children, especially young children, at home alone. Many say the solution would be for their children to be in school.

School provides children with one or more meals each day that many students and their families depend on. Chalkbeat reports that most New York City students rely on school cafeterias to eat three meals a day; more than 70% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, based on their family’s income. School also educates students so they can be better prepared for jobs that they will have in the future.

But many prioritize safety above all else. While the death rate from COVID-19 for kids within the age range of 9-14 years old is 0.1%, there is the added risk of the kids bringing the virus home to relatives who may be at higher risk.

According to the New York Times, children spread COVID-19 at the same rate as adults, with each sick person able to pass the disease on to 4 or 5 people. If kids go to school and contract COVID-19, their parents and grandparents can get it from them. People over the age of 65 have a higher mortality rate from COVID-19 than others.

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has disagreed with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on the largest school district's reopening plans.

President Donald Trump has been pushing for schools to reopen fully, while Governor Cuomo has said that New York City and New York State could not reopen too quickly as it could hinder the progress that the state has made in reopening.

On July 15, Mayor de Blasio said that New York City public schools would reopen three days each week for students.

On August 7, Governor Cuomo said that schools in New York State would reopen in the fall, citing low numbers of COVID-19 cases. New York State has prevented a spike in the reopening process so far.

A hybrid approach will likely be taken into consideration when schools reopen. Teachers will not be able to teach their students in person if they contract the virus, raising the debate as to whether the students of that teacher should even go to school and what approach should be taken if their teacher falls ill.

A proposed solution for this could be substitute teachers, but a potential problem is that having many different teachers in rotation could interfere with the learning of students, and it could increase infection rates in the schools.

There is also the possibility that schools return to online learning. Such an operation will be an issue for schools that charge tuition, as according to CNBC, parents want refunds for their kids’ tuitions if their schools go online in the fall because they believe that online education is not as effective as in-person school.

Executive Vice President of Policy and External Relations at the Georgia Charter Schools Association Dr. Bonnie Holliday highlighted the issue facing schools all over the country. “We’re about to call the game early and head-on into summer,” Holliday said. “I’ve stopped visiting the emails. We’re still paying tuition. We just can’t do any of it.” Holliday went on to cite the inconveniences of online learning, referring to projects. “I looked at one activity that asked for my daughter to send a picture of something made with pipe cleaners,” Holliday said. “Where am I going to get pipe cleaners now? I would be less frustrated if they’d call it what it is. Just say, ‘we have great teachers, we have to pay them, we hope to see you in July or August.’ What I don’t love is paying thousands of dollars for a virtual curriculum when my husband and I are just trying to survive on a wing and a prayer every day.”

There is, however, a scenario in which NYC schools reopen safely, and they go back to normal for the whole fall and even some of the winter, depending on the timing of the second wave of COVID-19. This scenario, though, has been acknowledged as unlikely by many leaders involved in the decision of schools reopening.

One of these ways to approach reopening schools is to be fully online, with the potential consequences mentioned. Protective health measures have proved to hold much more value to many New Yorkers than other factors involved in the decision at hand, especially amid a pandemic.

The other way to approach reopening schools with safety in mind is a hybrid method. A hybrid reopening could minimize the spread of the virus while incorporating in-person learning. A spike in cases of COVID-19 in New York this month could change everything—just as case numbers staying low and a successful reopening could affect the mindset of the Mayor and Governor in terms of schools reopening.


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