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NYC public schools close Thursday as virus rate hits 3% threshold, de Blasio says

On Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that

On Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City schools will be closed to in-person education on Thursday, after the city reached its seven-day average COVID-19 infection rate of 3% that triggers an automatic closure and switch to all-remote learning. Credit: NY Mayor's Office

In-person education is being indefinitely shut down beginning Thursday across New York City's public school system, as Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that a looming second wave of coronavirus infections portended even more restrictions on everyday life.

De Blasio announced the closure first via a Tweet Wednesday afternoon and then at a news conference delayed by five hours, citing the latest citywide infection rate reaching a seven-day average of exactly 3%. That’s the minimum threshold, set in a September agreement with the teachers union, that triggers an automatic closure of all buildings.

Thursday begins the second time during the nine-month-long pandemic that a growth in infections has led to a systemwide closure.

De Blasio said the city and the state had not yet determined which benchmarks would guide reopening. The earliest that in-person instruction could resume would be the week after Thanksgiving, he said, but the closure could extend longer.

"Are schools gonna come back? We believe we can get them back and get them back soon. What's it gonna take? It's gonna take some additional measures, and we believe we can achieve 'em, but we gotta codify 'em and make 'em real," he said.

De Blasio also said more state-ordered restrictions are imminent, although he didn't provide details.

"No one is happy about the notion of any other restrictions — to our economy, or to our lives — but the numbers are speaking loudly, and additional restrictions are coming," he said.

When schools do reopen, there would be "an even heavier emphasis on testing," with actual enforcement of a rule from September that every student must have a signed authorization from family to permit random testing.

"We're going to fight this back. This is a setback, but it's a setback we will overcome," said de Blasio, who has presided over the first big city and one of the few nationwide to open schools during the pandemic.

De Blasio's news conference about the closure was scheduled for 10 a.m. but wound up beginning around 3 p.m. He attributed the late start to the infection rate — which came in "right on the razor's edge" of 3% — being checked and rechecked, and discussions between the state and city about closing the schools.

His news conference hadn't yet ended when Nassau County Executive Laura Curran's office sent out a news release saying, "I strongly disagree with Mayor de Blasio’s decision."

Curran doesn't have control of the county schools as de Blasio does in the city, but she said, "I will do everything I can to keep our schools open" and "Isolating children from teachers and classmates is detrimental to young people’s mental health and educational and emotional growth. Closing schools causes further economic devastation, and disproportionately harms families in lower-income communities."

Across Long Island, there have been sporadic closures due to positive COVID-19 tests in districts such as East Meadow, Shoreham-Wading River, William Floyd, Greenport, Lindenhurst, Port Jefferson, Riverhead and Longwood.

According to state figures, the city’s seven-day average is 2.5%, and Long Island’s is higher, at 3.2%. For now, though, nearly all school districts on the Island remain open.

The state and city report the rate of coronavirus infection using slightly different metrics: the city's rate is based on the day a test is taken, whereas the state derives its findings based on the day a test result comes back, de Blasio said.

The city’s closure of schools provoked a controversy in mid-March, when de Blasio reversed his weekslong stance against shutting down, and Cuomo ordered them closed. Around the same time, Cuomo also ordered schools in Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester County to close and extended the closure statewide, eventually for the rest of the academic year.

On Sept. 1, the Fishers Island school district, which is in Southold and located just south of Connecticut, became the first Long Island school district to reopen for the current school year, with the rest opening in the two weeks after that. The biggest group — 200,000 in 61 districts — returned on Sept. 8.

In a statement Wednesday evening sent through a spokesman, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said county officials "do not see any reason to shut down schools in Suffolk County at this time."

Earlier, at his own news conference, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo raised his voice with reporters who asked about the state’s role in closing city schools. He never acknowledged that city schools would be closing, or even whether he was aware of de Blasio’s decision. He appeared to learn of it from a reporter just moments before he was about to walk out, though de Blasio would later say the leaders had discussed it earlier in the day.

Over recent weeks, as the infection rate edged closer to the 3% threshold set in the agreement with the teachers union, de Blasio has defended sticking to the plan while gyms and indoor dining remain open for now, even as some research shows that schools aren't vectors for transmission.

De Blasio has been warning of a closure since last Friday, when the seven-day infection rate had hit 2.83%.

With 1.1 million students and 1,800 schools, the city has the biggest public school system in the country.

Until the closure, some students had been partaking in "blended" learning — spending some days of the week online and from home, and some days in person, due to staff shortages and the need for social distancing. Other students had been all-remote, based on parent choice. Only about 26% of students have attended any in-person classes as of figures released in late October.

Nancy Cia, who lives in the West Village, said she has two children, ages 6 and 8, in the school system, and that she objected to city leaders shuttering in-person learning.

"They need to put their priorities straight," Cia said. "School is essential."

With Robert Brodsky and Craig Schneider

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