Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency for the city of New York yesterday, banning gatherings of more than 500 people in order to stop community spread of the coronavirus. The only exceptions to the ban—which wipes out Broadway, among other entire sectors of Gotham's economy—are hospitals, nursing homes, public transit…and schools?
"There are three things we want to preserve at all cost," de Blasio explained at a press conference, in which he predicted that the number of cases in the city would grow from 100 to 1,000 within a week. "Our schools, our mass transit system, and most importantly our health care system." The possibility of that first imperative wiping out the third has left many parents, teachers, and scientists spooked.
"We can say with confidence that the actions of local government in the coming days and weeks will substantially impact the course of the epidemic in our city," a joint letter from 36 New York City infectious disease scientists stated yesterday, hours before de Blasio's declaration. "It is our view that New York City government should act now. We recommend that social distancing should be actively implemented, not merely recommended. Events with large numbers of people should be prohibited. Perhaps most importantly and controversially, schools should be closed within the next few days."
Virologist Paul Bieniasz, who signed the letter, explained the reasoning to Forbes: "NYC schools represent ~1700 gatherings typically of >500 people that are repeated daily. Closing schools is likely to dwarf the effect of stopping one-off 500 person gatherings….Can you imagine a more effective way to spread a respiratory virus than sending one or two family members (children) off to mix with hundreds of others, having them return to their families in the evening, and repeating that process every day?"
It is time to close our public schools. This isn't an easy decision, but we must take aggressive measures to stop the spread of #COVID19.
Teaching and learning can not take place under these circumstances for the safety and well being of the teachers and students 1/
— NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson (@NYCSpeakerCoJo) March 13, 2020
The Movement of Rank and File Educators, a sort of aggro caucus within the locally dominant United Federation of Teachers, argued yesterday that "it is past time to close the school system entirely," explaining: "We are of course concerned about the effects that this will have on students and their families. However, it is clear that the socially responsible course of action to #FlattenTheCurve on the outbreak. Transmission is clearly already happening in the schools and the sooner it stops the fewer people will die."
So what is de Blasio's justification not just for adopting a less aggressive social-distancing posture for public schools than the less-infected polities of Ohio, Michigan, Maryland, San Francisco, Bergen County, and the entire country of Estonia, but for attempting to keep these germ-swapping laboratories open "at all cost"?
Part of it is that New York schools provide social services, including to many poor kids. "We know that for many families, school is the only place to get meals for the day and that need continues even if a school closes," an Education Department spokeswoman told PIX 11. "If a school is closed for 24 hours we're prepared to serve grab-and-go breakfast and lunch for any student who wants it."
De Blasio also warns, as he did this morning on WNYC, of a "huge domino effect"—not of kids infecting each other and then infecting their more vulnerable family members, but of working families working less. "Where do our children go?" the mayor asked at Thursday's press conference. "And if our children have nowhere to go, then their parents can't go to work, and that includes a lot of parents we depend on, first responders, health care professionals. It's a very slippery slope."
Most worryingly from my perspective as a local parent, de Blasio is suggesting that children's comparative resilience to the virus is a factor in his thinking, when it's their potential as transmitting agents that should be the focus.
"I worry that [coronavirus] is becoming sort of the cause for making a bunch of decisions that actually alter all the rest of our life, including in some very bad ways," he said on The Daily Show this week. "Let me give you an example. Some people are saying, 'Close our schools.' Now, we have a lot of evidence that this disease, thank God, does not really have that much of an impact on healthy children. When you think about folks saying close everything…a lot of parents say to me, 'Our kids need the schools not just for their education. It's where they get their meals.'"
Italics again mine. The mayor this morning contradicted that logic on WNYC, disparaging what he called the "fallacy" that kids pulled from schools "would be in perfect isolation." It seems odd to worry about people's potential transmission effects only when they are no longer being corralled with hundreds of others in close quarters.
Faced with the very real domino effect of cascading positive tests, parents at my daughters' two Brooklyn schools have been yanking their kids at a very noticeable rate the past two days. (This will be my 11-year-old's last day.) It is possible that the combination of parent/teacher walkouts will spur a reluctant government into action; it is perhaps more probable that the sheer exponential velocity of spread will produce facts on the ground that will render Friday unrecognizable by Monday morning.
The question then will be: Did de Blasio's paternalistic instinct to use government schools as social service providers paradoxically risk the lives of his constituents?
"Other cities that hesitated when action was needed are paying a heavy price," warned the virologists' letter. "We should not gamble with the lives of New Yorkers."