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New York City Is Poised to Close Schools

The nation’s largest school system is on the precipice of closing classrooms as coronavirus cases rise.

New York City, once the global epicenter of the pandemic, has far lower rates of community infection than most of the country, but the numbers are quickly climbing. On Friday, the seven-day test positivity rate rose to 2.8 percent. If that rate reaches 3 percent, schools are supposed to close, and Mayor Bill de Blasio said that could happen as soon as Monday.

“The move — which is now regarded by some City Hall officials as a question of when, not if — would be perhaps the most significant setback yet for the city’s recovery,” wrote our colleague Eliza Shapiro, who covers the New York City schools.

Hundreds of thousands of parents (including Adam, who has two young daughters in public school) have cobbled together ways to send their kids to classrooms during this fractured school year, even for a few days a week.

For many, the looming reversal is a gut punch. Schools have posted exceptionally few infections and positivity rates far below the city average. And, as regular readers of this newsletter know, experts say that children, especially those of elementary school age, are not at high risk of spreading the virus.

“You are less likely to encounter somebody with infection in a school than you would be outside the school, and not just by a little but by a lot,” Dr. Jay Varma, the mayor’s senior adviser for public health, said last month.

And the evidence that indoor dining is a high-risk activity has steadily grown. Restaurants, gyms, cafes and other crowded indoor venues that cater to adults most likely accounted for some eight in 10 new infections in the early months of the U.S. coronavirus epidemic, according to a new analysis that used cellphone mobility data from 10 U.S. cities from March to May.

But in New York City — and in other cities across the country that have closed schools or delayed reopenings — restaurants, bars and gyms remain open.

“That NYC’s public schools may have to shut down because the city and state felt they just had to let people dine indoors and workout at a gym says all we need to know about how much our society values public education,” our colleague Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote on Twitter, “particularly when it comes to low-income Black & brown kids.”

There are no easy solutions to the dilemma. Teachers are understandably worried about contracting the coronavirus at work. Their unions stand firm on holding the city to its promise to close down schools if virus rates cross a threshold.

But officials also have to balance the livelihoods of restaurant and other service industry workers, many of them who are low-income and people of color, against attempts to save lives during the pandemic. Officials also have to weigh the survival of today’s economy against the education of a generation of children, as Eliza and our colleague Sharon Otterman reported today.

Nevertheless, Eliza and Sharon wrote, “The city appears headed toward a discordant new status quo, asking hundreds of thousands of children to learn in front of their laptops even as New Yorkers are still making indoor dinner reservations.”

The takeaway: New York City may soon crack down on children’s movements and ability to learn, even though it’s adults who are spreading the virus. “Ending in-person instruction right now would be a mistake,” The Times editorial board wrote this week in an editorial titled “New York City Must Hit Pause on Indoor Dining.

The cost: Online learning has had severe consequences for students’ academic progress and mental health, for the lives and livelihoods of their parents, and for the pace at which cities and countries could begin to recover from the health and economic catastrophes the virus had unleashed.

The global context: Many countries in western Europe have prioritized keeping classrooms open rather than bars and restaurants, even as cases surge. NPR wrote a smart analysis of how Europe has done it.

“I felt like I was trapped in my own little house and everyone was far away,” Aya Raji, a 14-year-old student in Brooklyn, told our colleague Emma Goldberg. “I was so alone. All the sad things I used to brush off, I realized I couldn’t brush them off anymore.”

Before the pandemic, she attended class, hosted movie nights for friends and practiced kick-flips with her skateboarding club. Then, when schools closed, she stayed home. Nothing could distract her from the bleak news, as she stared at her laptop for hours during virtual class. She stayed awake until 4 a.m., her mind racing with anxiety.

“A lot of adults assume teens have it easy,” she said. “But it’s hitting us the hardest.”

A recent study found that nearly one-third of 3,300 high-school students reported feeling unhappy or depressed in recent months. Warning signs include severe risk-taking behavior, significant weight loss, excessive use of drugs or alcohol, and drastic changes in mood, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

A college perspective: “Students in desperate need of mental health resources during a global pandemic were left in the dark,” Bridget Early and Andrew Favakeh, student journalists at Butler University, wrote in an opinion piece about the mental health effects of quarantine.

  • After weeks of cases in the single digits, West Virginia University reported more than 60 positive test results over a three-day period this past weekend. Social gatherings and coronavirus fatigue are to blame, Duncan Slade reported for The Daily Athenaeum.

  • A good read: When students at Loyola University New Orleans, test positive, they get a call from a fellow student. A team of eight student-employees are responsible for calling infected peers to conduct contact tracing. Now, cases are spiking. “It has been absolute chaos,” one student tracer told Emma Ruby, at The Maroon. “It went from four to five calls a day to 26 or 27 calls. I have been working for 15 minutes and called 11 people.”

We’d love to keep featuring student reporting. Please email Amelia with links.

Our colleague Dani Blum asked parents across the country what raising kids has been like during the pandemic. The health crisis started when Cece Flores’s son was 4 months old. Since then, they’ve barely left their neighborhood in Montreal.

“From the second I wake up to the moment my son goes to sleep, I am just all hands on him,” she said. “I don’t really get a lot of moments to myself. It’s just 100 percent parenting.”

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