With the devastating consequences of pandemic school closures becoming more and more clear, it’s worth revisiting former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s March 2020 decision to close America’s largest school system. It was a decision of great consequence that led to over a million children being locked out of school — and undoubtedly motivated other districts to shut their doors.
Allow me to begin by saying that, of course, I recognize spring 2020 was an extremely difficult time for New York. Public hospitals were under significant pressure and a lot of people were afraid. Many New Yorkers tragically lost their lives to a vicious virus. At the same time, it’s unclear that fully closing schools was the right decision, particularly given the impact on the city’s most vulnerable youth. Another pandemic is likely to arrive sooner rather than later and it’s useful to reflect, like German politicians and journalists are doing, on whether schools should have closed during that complicated period.
The mayor initially opposed closing schools, but relented after significant pressure from aides, unions, and the media. Take a look at his tweets from March 12th and 13th explaining his reluctance to close schools. (At the time de Blasio was tweeting this, San Francisco had already decided to close its schools “for three weeks.”)
Note how de Blasio declared on March 12th that “NYC public schools are essential,” because children rely on them for meals, parents for child care while working — yes, public schools do have a child care function — and all students rely on them to learn. A day later, de Blasio noted that “600,000 students” were still attending school and said additional social distancing measures would be implemented. He added that parents “who work as first responders and health care workers depend on our schools so they can be out on the front lines of this crisis.” Indeed, Italian school closures led to a situation where “many hospital nurses were forced to drop out at a critical time to look after their children.”
Who did de Blasio sound like at this point in time? The Swedes who decided to keep primary and lower secondary schools open for children up to 16 years of age.