The fate of what remains of the New York City public school year was cast into doubt after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Saturday that schools would stay closed until September, only to be challenged by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s assertion that the decision was based on a gubernatorial executive order that is his alone to make.
After weeks of mounting pressure from teachers and families as the coronavirus pandemic spread in New York, on March 15th Cuomo gave Blasio 24 hours to come up with a school closure plan—and the mayor closed schools that afternoon. The next day, Cuomo signed an executive order to close schools state-wide through April 1 with extensions as needed.
For New York City schools, de Blasio announced schools would be closed through April 20th initially. He extended that closure through the end of the school year in a press conference Saturday when he announced that "New York City public schools will remain closed for the remainder of this school year.”
“We originally said the best-case scenario would be to come back on Monday, April 20th at the end of the spring break. We could see already, that was not going to be possible many days ago. And then the State put the PAUSE on until April 29th. But we've had conversations in the last few days to say, ‘is it viable? Is it safe? Is it smart? Would it work? Would it help our children? Would it be fair to the entire school community to bring our schools back at this point, at any point between now and the end of June?’” de Blasio added, noting that “there is nothing easy about this decision.”
But in a press conference two hours later, Cuomo called de Blasio’s announcement merely an “opinion” and said the school closure decision is based on his executive orders and will be made on the state level in coordination with New Jersey and Connecticut.
“You can't make the decision just within New York City without coordinating with the region. Any decision to reopen will also be coordinated,” Cuomo said. He added, "I don't understand how you would open businesses in May, but keep schools closed in June... Schools do day care effectively... How can you say to people, ‘I think you're going back to work in May, but schools are going to continue to be closed.’"
The political sparring left many parents, students and educators saying they were confused and disgusted by their elected officials.
“This squabbling between the mayor and the governor is embarrassing and causing tremendous stress for families, students, and educators. Their inability to come together, and make decisions informed by the well being of students and families, is immoral and will continue to have disastrous consequences for our communities, especially those so deeply impacted by the inequity in healthcare and testing,” said Natasha Capers, Director of the Coalition for Educational Justice, in a statement.
“It's concerning to not know what's going to be coming, and then being out of school for so long, for the remainder of the year,” said Thasha Palmer of the Upper East Side whose two children are graduating from elementary and high school at the end of the year. “How are we going to make that adjustment? And how are we going to get the children prepared for that, mentally and emotionally?”
Kira Andrews, a senior at the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology in Bay Ridge said she’d like some clarity on the mixed messages: "Me and my family and friends are confused about what happens now. We're just like, 'huh?’” She added that the school closure "honestly feels surreal considering my classmates and I have worked so hard to get to this point."
The United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew simply tweeted “Keeping school buildings closed is the right decision - regardless of who is responsible.”
On Saturday afternoon, Cuomo’s spokesman Rich Azzopardi emailed out comments from regional officials in favor of a coordinated response including this statement from Westchester County Executive George Latimer: “We strongly believe the decision to close the school system should be one that is done for the region as a whole. While we sit here in Westchester County, our borders are blurred with our neighboring counties and New York City. We as a state are stronger when we work together to make decisions that impact all of us, especially during this public health crisis. We look forward to continuing to work with the Governor for the betterment of all New Yorkers during this pandemic.”
Meanwhile, the Hartford Courant pointed out that Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont has already decided schools there would stay closed through May 20th.
One public law expert said Cuomo may be overreaching in his interpretation of the sovereignty of his executive order.
NYU Law Professor Rick Hills told WNYC/Gothamist that Cuomo’s executive order gives him broad authority over local laws but does not overrule Mayor Bill de Blasio’s power to shut down schools in an emergency. That statutory authority, he says, still rests with the New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who is picked by the mayor. And that rule was never specifically suspended by Cuomo.
"There's no power to the governor to require every local official to kiss the governor's ring before they take an emergency measure,” Hills said.
In announcing that remote learning would continue through the end of the school year, de Blasio and Carranza said the Department of Education was still trying to distribute technology to students who don’t have access to laptops or other internet-connected devices. These students would have a device by the end of April, de Blasio vowed.
About 240,000 families requested a device through a DOE survey, and 70,000 devices have been distributed including 13,000 for students in homeless shelters. Schools had also issued 175,000 devices to students before the survey was sent out.
The DOE said it was still reviewing how grading and promotion will be conducted this year, but all student progress will be gauged on multiple measures and allowing for the challenges of remote learning. Graduation requirements will also be flexible though the DOE said students must still pass their courses and earn 44 credits to graduate.
The last day of remote learning will still be June 26th, the date that school is slated to end for the year. The Regional Enrichment Centers that have been established to provide childcare for essential workers will continue as needed, the DOE said.
As for his degree of certainty that schools will be able to return for the 2020-2021 school year, de Blasio said Saturday: “We can at least plan for the scheduled opening of school. We have to make sure the disease is beaten back, but we can plan for it because as we've been saying from the beginning, and our Health Commissioner has been saying, we think September is a good date to think about when things get more fully back to normal.”
With reporting by Jessica Gould and Karen Yi