New York Mayor Bill de Blasio doubled down Friday on his decision not to shut down public schools, despite increasing pressure to do so from teacher unions and other Democratic politicians.
“We shut down the school system, we might not see it for the rest of the school year. We might not see the beginning of the new school year. And that weighs heavily on me,” the mayor said, according to The New York Times.
Public schools in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Atlanta and other cities have closed down due to the coronavirus outbreak. There have been statewide closures in some states, including Virginia, Ohio and Washington state.
New York is temporarily closing schools where students or teachers test positive for the virus, but the state has so far held off on broader closures.
In the Big Apple, shutting down schools would be one of the most consequential shutdowns in the country, and some have expressed concerns about possible ripple effects. Workers in crucial areas such as transportion and medical care, for instance, may have to take time off to care for children. Many low-income families also rely on schools for meals, medical help and even laundry services.
But teacher unions have increased pressure on de Blasio, a Democrat, to shutter schools, saying it is an important move to stop the spread of a deadly virus that has turned into a pandemic.
“We must find ways to keep our children safe and to see that they are fed. We must do all we can to help ensure that our students can continue to learn,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement. “But we have reached the point where continuing to keep our classrooms open poses a greater lasting threat than the disruption that will result from school closings.”
NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who supports the closures, tweeted: “Teaching and learning cannot take place under these circumstances."
“The City must immediately come up with a plan that includes childcare relief for families who need it so that our essential workers, especially healthcare workers, can continue with their duties,” he said.
But de Blasio still has the support of other leaders, including Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has the power to shut down schools statewide but has so far not chosen to do so. According to the Times, Cuomo has said that evidence from other hard-hit countries is unclear on whether children were carriers of the virus.
De Blasio brushed off the criticism from those calling for closures, saying: “This isn’t a popularity contest -- this is war.”
His decision to keep schools open has drawn support from other unions, such as those representing health care workers.
“While calls to close New York City’s public schools are being received, we urge Mayor de Blasio to recognize the plight of the healthcare workers, transit workers, and other essential workers who are unable to take time off,” George Gresham, the president of 1199SEIU, said in a statement. “These hardworking women and men rely on our public schools to not only educate their children, but to provide a safe environment for them while their parents work.”
“Closing New York City’s public schools with no care plan for these children would place a dire strain on our social infrastructure by reducing the healthcare workforce, and possibly halting the gains being made to help curb the spread of COVID-19. This would undoubtedly pose an even greater danger to New York’s families,” he said.
The debate within New York City comes as the country as a whole is taking increased steps to combat the virus.
President Trump on Friday declared a national emergency in order to free up nearly $50 billion in funding for states. The House passed a coronavirus response package late Friday, sending it to the Senate for consideration.