NYC keeping schools open, defying coronavirus trend

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NEW YORK (AP) — The nation's largest public school system will remain open during the coronavirus crisis, New York City's mayor said Friday, defying mounting pressure to close as he raised concerns about the unintended consequences of leaving more than 1.1 million students with no place to go.

Mayor Bill de Blasio's decision leaves the Big Apple as an outlier among a growing list of cities and states, including Pennsylvania and Michigan, that are closing schools for a week or more as part of a nationwide attempt to limit the spread of what's known as COVID-19.

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The disease has already turned the lights out on Broadway and shuttered big New York gathering spots from art museums to Carnegie Hall, but de Blasio said shuttering schools would have a domino effect on the city's ability to respond to the crisis by forcing parents who are first responders and healthcare workers to scramble for childcare or stay home.

"Many, many parents want us to keep schools open," de Blasio said. "Depend on it. Need it. Don't have another option."

New York City's teachers unions and a number of local politicians disagreed, worried about the risk of teachers and students being exposed to the disease. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson argued that "teaching and learning can not take place under these circumstances." Student attendance plummeted on Friday to 68% from 85% the day before, the city said.


But a major healthcare workers union backed de Blasio's position, concerned that such a change could put pressure on nurses and others with school-age children when having them on the job is most critical. George Gresham, the president of 1199 SEIU, said closing schools "would undoubtedly pose an even greater danger to New York's families."

De Blasio said the city's public schools would make adjustments to put more space between students in what is known as "social distancing," such as moving meals into classrooms to avoid cafeteria crowding and moving gym classes outside depending on the weather.

The mayor said that as of Friday morning, there was one confirmed case of a student with coronavirus, on Staten Island. A teacher who works at a school for "medically fragile" students in Brooklyn has also tested positive, he said.

The city is temporarily closing individual schools where people have tested positive or are suspected of having coronavirus, but de Blasio said "it is a very high bar to shut down" the entire system. He said he reserved the right to close schools if conditions change.

"I think there is an illusion out there that you can shut down schools temporarily in the midst of a growing crisis. I think the sober, honest reality is that if you shut down, there's a real possibility" that they may not reopen for the school year or even the calendar year, de Blasio said.

As officials deliberated the schools conundrum on Friday, restaurants, subway cars and sidewalks were noticeably emptier as people telecommuted to work and avoided public places.

Courts across the state curtailed operations, delaying civil trials that haven't started, halting selection of new juries and encouraging proceedings to be done by video. Store shelves were wiped clean of basic necessities, such as toilet paper and tissues, and products like hand sanitizer and wipes.

Restaurants and nightspots are reporting drop-offs of 20%-80% over the past week, particularly around touristy Times Square, said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.

De Blasio encouraged people to continuing working and living their lives, albeit with extra care. He shot down rumors swirling on social media that Manhattan would somehow be locked down because of the disease.

"People are scared to come outside," Central Park tour guide Justin Rahim said. He said several of his pedicab drivers — reliant on tourists for their living — quit Thursday to drive for Uber's food delivery service. "It's crazy. How am I going to survive this?"

The virus, as of Friday afternoon, had been confirmed in more than 420 people in New York state, including over 150 in the city, and had caused one death in the metropolitan area, in neighboring New Jersey. About 50 New York patients are hospitalized.

The number of illnesses may be higher because of a shortage of test kits.

The state on Friday opened a drive-through testing center in New Rochelle, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo said New York had gotten federal permission to work with 28 laboratories to amp up testing. He said he hoped the statewide capacity could hit 6,000 tests a day next week — compared to about 3,200 tests done, in total, to date.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.

Recent data from China suggests children are at similar risk of infection as the general population, though less likely to have severe symptoms. Evidence from China also suggests that even if mildly affected, children can spread the virus to others.

Cuomo announced Thursday that gatherings with more than 500 people would temporarily be banned in the state as of 5 p.m. Friday, though evening shows on Broadway were called off a day sooner. Many gatherings in smaller event spaces would have to cut capacity in half.

The restrictions, imposed by an emergency order, don't apply to schools, hospitals, nursing homes, shopping malls and mass transit, and there were exceptions for other types of businesses, like casino floors.

"This could be a six-, seven-, eight-, nine-month affair," Cuomo said at a news conference Friday. "This is not going to be over in a couple of weeks."

The governor later revealed that one of his three daughters had been in a precautionary quarantine after coming into contact with someone who had traveled to a coronavirus hotspot. Her precautionary seclusion has now ended, he said.

De Blasio's decision on keeping schools open didn't come until late in the afternoon, after President Donald Trump went on television to declare a national emergency and elected officials across the country announced their own school shutdowns.

Without school to occupy their days, kids would become restless and go find their friends, bringing the same potential for transmitting coronavirus as they'd have in a classroom, de Blasio said.

"What do you think would happen if you let a bunch of New York City school kids out for not a day, not a week, but three months?" he said. "You think they're going to stay in isolation in their apartment?"

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