Last night, every family at my kids’ school in Brooklyn received a scary message from the principal: A school parent has tested positive for COVID-19.
It’s the type of message that’s obviously becoming more common as the novel coronavirus spreads across the country. But the second part of the email was, if anything, more jarring: New York City didn’t plan to close the school. What’s more, the city hadn’t informed parents. Principal Katie Dello Stritto explained that she was alerting parents on her own without the city’s consent.
“I have reached out to the Department of Education for additional guidance,” Dello Stritto wrote. “They have mandated the building be cleaned at this time. Beyond that, I cannot wait for them and feel it is critical that I notify you.”
Dello Stritto also called on New York to shut its schools: “I am advocating in every way that our school, as well as all New York City Public Schools, be closed at this time. I can not make that decision. I would if I could.” (Scroll down for her full note.)
After I got the message, I did some quick looking around. The city has kept open at least two other schools where a parent tested positive.
It also is hoping to keep a school open in Staten Island where a student has tested positive.
The city’s policy is to do a deep clean for a day when a student or staffer has tested positive. Since the Staten Island case was announced Saturday, “we may be able to achieve that necessary work before Monday,” New York City’s Department of Education spokeswoman Miranda Barbot told me.
Barbot also confirmed that there is no mandate to close schools that have had a family member of a student test positive. Barbot hasn’t yet answered my question about why parents at my kids’ school weren’t notified by the city and instead it was left to the principal to go rogue.
New York, of course, faces an excruciating decision. It’s the largest public school system in the country by far, with 1.1 million children. Roughly three-fourths of students are in low-income families, and about 10% are homeless. They get fed at school.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he’s worried about “a cascading effect” that shutting the schools could have, forcing many vital sectors' employees to stay home.
De Blasio has also expressed doubt about the effectiveness of a closure. “Do we really believe these kids will hole up in their rooms for a month?”
But other large cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago, are shuttering their schools. And pressure is becoming overwhelming for New York City to do the same.
“There are some places right now that are being stupid,” said Randi Weingarten, the president the American Federation of Teachers said Saturday. “New York City is being stupid.”
Here’s the head of the City Council.
Experts are also urging New York City to shut the system down. Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb has called New York a dangerous outlier.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that for school closures to work at all, they need to be long. Boston’s schools are closed through April.
Meanwhile, teachers in New York are beginning to organize a “mass sick out.” Here is the full note from my kids’ principal.
>I am writing to you all to let you know that as of right now NYC schools continue to be open. I am also reaching out to let you know that I have been notified that a member of our parent body has been confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19. Perhaps you may have heard rumors milling already. I have reached out to the Department of Education for additional guidance. They have mandated the building be cleaned at this time. Beyond that, I cannot wait for them and feel it is critical that I notify you. I feel very strongly about this and that is why I am writing to you to notify you, not to panic you. Information is critical at this time The health and safety of our students, families and staff is our utmost priority. While we know that the risk of serious illness for the majority may be low, the risk of spreading the virus is more unknown. This individual is following the guidelines from their health care professionals and is not posing a risk to anyone in our community at this time. Please monitor your own health and any symptoms as we have all been directed to do at this time. I will be sharing more information as soon as I have it.
>I am advocating in every way that I can that our school, as well all New York City Public Schools, be closed at this time. I cannot make that decision. I would if I could. I understand closing schools is a very complex issue for our city as a whole, I also whole-heartedly understand that you are all very worried. I understand that you are worried about the well-being of your families, yourself, our staff and our community. It is very hard to reconcile all the closures and postponed events both on a small and large scale and understand why having our regularly scheduled days in school continue. The Department of Education has told us that no one will be penalized for COVID-19 -related absences during this time. Please do what is best for each of your families individually.
>I understand that considering these recent developments you may wish to keep your child at home on Monday and moving forward. I also understand that our staff members will feel the same way. However, I will be at school on Monday, as I do not expect they will close us at this time. I know that we will work to create the best possible safe environment for your children if they are in school.
>I know you may have many questions. I will send updates as I get them. I would be remiss if I did not say how fortunate and grateful I feel to work with such amazing students, staff, and this entire community every day.
Update, March 15, 2020: A principal at a second New York City public school emailed families telling them — over city objections — that a parent had tested positive for COVID-19: “I have been instructed to not send out any communica[tions] to you but at this point, I felt it was urgent and the interest of public health to share this information.”
Here is the full letter, obtained by ProPublica, which the principal sent Sunday morning.
Later on Sunday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that public schools would close for more than a month.
Asked about the principal's letter, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education did not address the city's lack of notification to families. “Health and safety always comes first,” wrote spokeswoman Danielle Filson in an email. “All of our school buildings will be deep cleaned tomorrow.”