Shortly before 10 a.m. last Wednesday, city investigators began looking into the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center in Kensington, Brooklyn. The city’s 311 hotline had fielded multiple complaints about a yeshiva, Mevakshai Hashem, believed to be operating illegally inside the historic building. Five hours later, members of the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement closed the case, deeming the school a childcare center exempt from the targeted shutdown in neighborhoods with heightened coronavirus testing rates.
In the days since, hundreds of boys have poured into the center at 550 Ocean Parkway each morning, defying state lockdown orders with the implicit blessing of the city task force charged with enforcement.
Across Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, private schools have managed to skirt oversight from city officials by posing as “school-age child care programs,” according to community members who spoke to Gothamist. In many cases, the schools appear to have bypassed local enforcement without much effort.
While there is a licensed daycare center at the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center, records show its capacity is limited to just 36 people — a fraction of the number of elementary and middle school-aged children dropped off at the building by yellow school buses each morning, according to videos shared with Gothamist.
The continued defiance has enraged some local public school parents, who questioned why the rules against in-person instruction don’t seem to apply to the religious schools.
“The only people facing consequences for this lockdown are the ones actually following the rules,” said a parent, who asked not to be named for fear of backlash from neighbors. “My son, who is in Kindergarten, sees kids going to school right next door, and he's asked us why he can't go to school too. Unfortunately we don’t have an answer for him.”
Complaint data analyzed by Gothamist shows the city received 158 reports about private schools operating illegally in the “red” and “orange” zones in Brooklyn and Queens during the first ten days of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s schools lockdown. Of those complaints, 132 of them concern yeshivas suspected of staying open in Brooklyn’s hotspots.
Many of the complaints are concentrated in Borough Park, where the COVID-19 positivity testing rate was nearly five times that of the citywide average, according to the most recent data released by the city more than two weeks ago. Roughly 24 percent of the total number of investigations were referred to another agency because they were "out of the jurisdiction" of the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement — indicating the task force believed the schools had proper daycare certifications. The majority of the cases remain unresolved.
A spokesperson for City Hall, Mitch Schwartz, defended the city’s enforcement efforts, noting that state guidelines allow some programs to stay open. “The bottom line is that our inspectors have made hundreds of visits, talked to countless families and administrators, and remain more dedicated than ever to keeping New Yorkers safe and fighting back COVID-19," he said.
The city issued 15 summonses to non-public schools in Brooklyn in the first two days of this week. Schwartz said another five schools were found to be operating illegally, but were not issued summonses, which carry a fine up to $15,000, because they agreed to shut down. The city has declined to name the schools that have been issued fines.
Cuomo has repeatedly criticized the city’s enforcement efforts, accusing Mayor Bill de Blasio of shying away from a confrontation with the politically powerful ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Earlier this week, his office issued new guidance, reiterating that unlicensed child care programs must cease operating inside school buildings in the red and orange zones.
“A school is not a child care facility, and you fool no one by saying, 'Oh no, they're not walking into a school they're walking into a childcare facility,’” Cuomo told reporters, in response to de Blasio’s suggestion that daycare centers remained an open question. “Maybe you can fool some people, but you can't fool the State of New York.”
Citing the city’s lack of local oversight, Cuomo also announced that he would immediately withhold funding to any yeshiva found to be violating the state’s closure orders. A spokesperson for the Governor’s Office did not respond to repeated requests about whether any schools have received notice that they will lose state funding.
Many of the private religious schools that have remained open benefit from substantial taxpayer funding. The Bnos Zion of Bobov, where students were observed entering last week, received $1.4 million from the state in 2017, according to a report from the Orthodox-led advocacy group Young Advocate for Fair Education.
(Inquiries to Bnoz Zion of Bobov and the Mevaskshai Hasem Yeshiva were not returned.)
The confusion over enforcement comes amid continued uncertainty about whether Governor Cuomo will extend the shutdown orders, which are set to expire on Thursday. While de Blasio has expressed hope that some schools could reopen in Central Queens, Cuomo has dismissed the possibility as conjecture.
The city has also stopped releasing daily positivity rates for NYC ZIP codes, including ZIP codes that include Cuomo's red and orange zones, making it difficult to determine the trajectory of the lockdown.
On Monday, Mayor de Blasio met with Orthodox Jewish leaders, where he said he pushed for a “positive reset” and discussed his own failures of communication early in the pandemic. “The number one takeaway from the meeting was more dialogue, more communication is the way forward,” he said.
But one parent in the ultra-Orthodox community said the conciliatory approach had little impact, and that most yeshivas in the neighborhood were still operating — either by claiming to be daycare centers or without any cover at all.
“It’s back to the business as usual,” said the parent, who asked for anonymity because his children are still attending yeshivas in the neighborhood. “They’re not afraid of the city.”
Additional reporting by Jen Chung.