Reopening Schools: Do New York City Officials Know What They’re Doing?

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Reopening Schools: Do New York City Officials Know What They’re Doing?

On the morning of September 13, shortly after the New York school system’s Covid-screening website crashed, Mayor Bill de Blasio stood outside PS 25 in the Bronx celebrating the reopening of the city’s public schools. It was a heady occasion: For the first time in 18 months, the largest public school system in the country—nearly 1.1 million students—would be back in swing, and de Blasio was intent on proving that it was not only the right decision but also a safe decision.

“It’s so good to see all our kids coming back to school in person where they can learn best,” de Blasio said as a collection of multicolored balloons bobbed in the background. Dressed in a trim blue suit, his face mask temporarily stowed, he touted the Department of Education’s Covid-19 precautions and vowed that students would be safe. “Kids coming to school today, all across the city, are going to experience a gold standard of health and safety measures,” he said.

De Blasio seems to like the phrase “gold standard,” as he repeats it frequently when talking up the DOE’s Covid-19 protocols. But two days later, my son offered a more, well, tarnished assessment of the situation. “My school is a Covid petri dish,” he said, citing the 25 to 30 kids crammed into his classes; the clustered seating arrangements, with four kids to each worktable; the teeming hallways in which “everyone is bumping into everyone else”; and the haphazard masking by some friends and classmates. “It’s a bit scary,” he confessed.

Since my 11-year-old son is too young to be vaccinated, I wasn’t thrilled by this report, but I wasn’t all that surprised either. In the weeks leading up to de Blasio’s Bronx appearance, I had watched the DOE roll back safety measure after safety measure as the mayor repeated his “gold standard” mantra.

True, the city does have a mask mandate, and it’s just implemented a vaccine mandate for staff, both of which put it ahead of the many districts that have pushed back against basic science. But social distancing appears largely notional, thanks to the mass overcrowding of many public  schools. Testing is spotty (less than a quarter of kids have consented to getting tested) and applies only to the unvaccinated in any case. Quarantine protocols have been weakened to the point of farce—or at least confusion. And the city’s priorities seem out of whack—as seen, for instance, in its decision to chisel the funding (and hours) of the Situation Room, the multi-agency brain trust that’s supposed to track Covid-19 outbreaks in schools.

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