School Closures Are Taking a Toll on NYC’s Children
Mia Cooper, Grade 11, Co-Editor-in-Chief
Eight months after the original closure of New York City public schools in March, an ominous email popped up in my inbox. “The mayor may decide to close public schools temporarily,” wrote High School of American Studies principal Alessandro Weiss. “Stay tuned for any announcements in the coming days.” Five days later, the Department of Education canceled in-person school.
With 1.1 million students now in fully remote learning, the message is clear: the social-emotional learning and overall education of students is not a priority.
On November 18, Mayor Bill de Blasio stated on Twitter that this decision was made “out of an abundance of caution.” The Mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza argued that the health risk was too great, with overall New York City COVID-19 cases surpassing the 3% mark for 7 days.
However, schools are not the main breeding ground for the virus. Brown University economist Emily Oster and a team of data scientists at Qualtrics found that less than 0.5% of students and faculty nationwide are infected with the virus. Keeping schools open does not pose a major health risk, and many Canadian and European municipalities have remained in-person throughout the pandemic with few negative health consequences.
The cost of a school closure is minimal in terms of physical well-being but is high in terms of the holistic toll on students. The “caution” that Mayor de Blasio used in his decision disregards the developmental, academic, and emotional needs of New York City’s children.
The cost to academic and social-emotional health is particularly concerning in the early school years. Elementary school is where children learn basic reading, writing, and math—the foundation for later learning. From pre-K forward, children learn how to conduct themselves in the world: building relationships, managing emotions, and developing habits of learning. Young students who face challenges can receive support at school. On Zoom, none of this is easy. Children may lack the ability to maintain attention and stay organized without a physical classroom and a teacher to guide them. Social skills cannot be easily practiced without peers. Small lags in early learning, which may go undetected, can become major gaps.
Yet the cost of school closures is not limited to younger children: middle and high school students suffer repercussions as well. Teenagers report more symptoms of anxiety and depression when engaging in online schooling. Staying inside for long periods of time with little to no social or physical interaction can make work feel overwhelming. For many middle and high school students, school offers a network of emotional and practical support from peers, teachers, coaches, and guidance counselors. Without the hallway conversations, collaborative projects, and classroom discussions, the support is much less effective.
Parents also face a host of challenges with remote education. Many are forced to take on an unmanageable role in their child’s education, from helping their kid with nightly homework to monitoring daily Zoom calls. With these responsibilities and the additional responsibility of working, parents are struggling to juggle it all.
Teachers will also struggle more due to the school shutdown. Teachers have to juggle the many different learning environments that their students are in and still make their lessons engaging.
Additionally, while all students are experiencing a learning loss, online schooling has disproportionately affected students along racial and socioeconomic lines. Many private schools have stayed open while public schools have shut down, and wealthier students at public schools have more resources to help them adapt to online school. Low-income students are bound to fall further behind. Moreover, schools in wealthier districts tend to make live instruction more available to students while schools in poorer districts do not. A study at Brown University determined that students will lose about ½ of the math knowledge and about ⅓ of their reading knowledge that they should have retained from the previous year. This deficit increases for Black and Hispanic children, who, according to a study from McKinsey & Company, are experiencing about three more months of learning loss than other students.
The closure of public schools in New York City is unreasonable and wrong; there is little scientific rationale and there are numerous drawbacks for students. The decision about opening schools should be centered on the well-being of students. Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza have let our city down.
Editor’s Note: On November 29, Mayor de Blasio reversed part of his decision and chose to reopen public elementary schools. He announced that the city would no longer use the 3% mark to make decisions about public schools. The pre-K and elementary school students that opted for in-person learning will return to classrooms on December 7.