Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new state orders, which closed dozens of schools across Brooklyn and Queens because of spiking COVID-19 rates in those areas, have some parents and officials criticizing the government for overreacting with blanket closures, especially in schools with no cases.
About 124 schools at 169 locations (some schools have multiple campuses, and some buildings hold multiple schools) in Brooklyn and Queens were shut down under the state and city closures. Those schools are in Cuomo’s red and orange zones, which are concentrated in the south Brooklyn neighborhoods, Forest Hills and Far Rockaway.
The three-zone plan also includes yellow zones around the red and orange zones, where another 308 public school sites will stay open but must have mandatory weekly testing of students and staff.
Jackson Heights parent Matt Caldecutt sends his child to a Catholic School in a yellow zone, where mandatory weekly testing will start next week under the state’s new protocols.
"I'm all for keeping the kids safe,” Caldecutt told Gothamist on Wednesday. But he deemed the cluster map for Queens was "rather arbitrary."
"It doesn't seem to be a very precise construct," he said, noting that private schools all had to individually send out detailed plans to the state Department of Health. These closures will cause "undue hardship," Caldecutt added, and has been encouraging local parents to raise their concerns with the governor's office.
Adding to the confusion was de Blasio's closure of 16 school sites Tuesday that apparently fall into Cuomo’s yellow zone and would not have needed to close under the new state restrictions. Regardless, those schools will stay closed, the Department of Education said.
City Councilman Brad Lander also deemed the community-based closures overly broad, especially since the city's DOE is to begin its random testing next week of each school.
“We are starting to have a testing program in the schools, so we could be testing in all of these schools that are in the hot zones. And we could invite private and parochial schools, if they want to, to participate in the testing program,” he said in an interview Wednesday.
On Thursday, Lander and state Assemblymember Robert Carroll held a press conference to call for reopening PS 130, a Windsor Terrace elementary school that was closed for being in an orange zone though the school has reportedly never had a COVID case. State Senator Andrew Gounardes and Councilman Justin Brannan held a similar event outside of PS 682 in Bensonhurst Thursday, saying the school is in a yellow zone, but has never had a reported COVID case and shouldn't be closed.
Heather Dailey, who also lives in Jackson Heights, said her son depends on the support he gets in person at his third-grade class in a District 75 school for students with special needs. Now, his school PS 219 is closed for at least two weeks because its neighborhood, Kew Gardens Hills, falls into an orange zone even though it doesn’t appear on the DOE’s current COVID-19 case map. Dailey is left trying to teach her son as she works from home in their studio apartment.
“He gets a lot of behavioral support at school that he doesn't get at home. And so there's more meltdowns and when he has a really bad meltdown, he self-injures as well, and he wasn't having meltdowns like that before. He doesn't have them in school at all,” Dailey said. “It's hard to see your child really struggling and and not get any support.”
"It's just really not fair," she added. "And then they [close] down all the schools in these hotspots without even really looking are there infections in the schools? Or are these kids have been coming from the neighborhood? Are kids being bussed in from other places?"
On Tuesday, the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn issued a letter after Cuomo announced the additional school closures. The letter noted that the local Catholic schools have spent about $18 million dollars in safety measures and operations, and while there have been “isolated cases” no outbreaks have occurred.
“Our meticulously planned protocols, designed to keep students and teachers safe, and developed in conformity with city, state, and federal health guidelines, are working,” the letter said. “Rather than judging each school on their individual merits and their fidelity to the protocols set forth by their own administrations, the governor and mayor are painting all institutions with a draconian broad brush.”
“If other schools cannot meet the standards needed to operate safely, they should indeed be closed until they demonstrate their ability to do so,” the letter continued. “In the meantime, it is absolutely unfair to be associated with the non-compliant schools merely because we share a ZIP code.”
With Jessica Gould and Yasmeen Khan