What will happen if the coronavirus enters the New York City public school system with its nearly 1,800 schools and more than 1.1 million students? Is the city ready and how will it respond? WSR asked City Councilmember Mark Levine who represents District 7, including Manhattan Valley, Manhattanville, Morningside Heights, and Hamilton Heights. Levine is chairman of the Council’s health committee and sits on the education committee. He is also a public school parent.
West Side Rag: How is the city approaching the question of when and if to close the public schools?
Mark Levine: This is a question they are evaluating and reevaluating constantly on an almost minute-by-minute basis. Health officials will order a closing if they deem the risk to be significant, but there’s also a cost to such a move. Hundreds of thousands of kids rely on the schools for free breakfast and lunch. They rely on access to nurses in the school buildings. Closing the schools would leave hundreds of thousands of parents with no childcare, forcing them to stay home from work. And remember that this is a disease, thank goodness, which essentially has not impacted younger children, and for the very few teens that have been impacted, the symptoms have been light.
WSR: What is the protocol if a public school child or staff member tests positive?
ML: The governor announced a new protocol today (Monday), which is: if there are any schools in which a child or staff member tests positive, the school will be closed for 24 hours for a deep cleaning and an assessment of a plan going forward. That hasn’t happened yet. There actually haven’t been any positive cases among either public school students or faculty.
WSR: Don’t you think that’s remarkable?
ML: Well, we’ve had, last count, 19 (it has since risen to 20) cases in New York City, and they skew towards older folks, mostly people over 50, with some exceptions. One assumes that as the numbers continue to grow, there will be someone from the school community who is a confirmed case. In the meantime, they’ve significantly expanded deep-cleaning protocols. The system-wide plan now is twice a week deep cleaning of the full buildings performed by custodial staff.
WSR: For all public schools?
ML: That’s right.
WSR: What if it shows up in one school? Does the whole system have to be closed or just that one school?
ML: What has been determined is that any school in which there is an individual case will be closed for 24 hours for a deep cleaning and an assessment of a plan going forward.
WSR: How are we really doing?
ML: This is a fast-moving situation and we should all be really cautious about predictions, because there are so many unknowns. I continue to have tremendous confidence in the city’s health department and its leaders — and in the state leadership and the collaboration between the state and city. I remain uneasy about federal failures and their impact on us locally. But, again, we’ve got a world-class city health department and great partners at the state level, and New Yorkers should take comfort in that.
WSR: Why are some private schools closing?
ML: A number of them have responded very aggressively to news of a suspected case or even a quarantine. I’m not going to pass judgement on the private institutions; they all have to make their own decisions. The city’s health experts simply haven’t deemed it recommended yet for our public institutions and I do have confidence in them.
WSR: What would you say to public school parents?
ML: I’m a public school parent and a CUNY parent, so I have as much personal skin in the game as anybody. I don’t say these things lightly. I understand that parents are anxious. I will report that, as of Friday, school attendance has been at or ahead of this time last year, so folks are listening to experts, they’re not panicking, and that’s what we would hope.”