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Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo clash over reopening NYC schools

Are New York City schools closed for the academic year? Depends on whether you ask the mayor or governor.

New York City public schools have been closed since March 15 due to the spread of the coronavirus.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Saturday that the city’s public schools would remain shut for the rest of the academic year, a decision that was widely expected given the scale of the coronavirus crisis in New York City.

“Lord knows, having to tell you that we cannot bring our schools back for the remainder of this school year is painful,” de Blasio said at a press conference Saturday. “But I can also tell you, it’s the right thing to do.”

But this is New York, so before anything happens, the mayor and the governor must squabble about it first. Barely hours after de Blasio said the nation’s largest school system would rely on remote learning through June, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo described the mayor’s decision as an “opinion.”

Cuomo said any decision in New York City would require coordination with counties surrounding New York City on Long Island and in Westchester, and ideally, in cooperation with New Jersey and Connecticut. His office told Vox the governor believes that such coordination will allow for clearer public messaging and limited public panic.

“You can’t make a decision just within New York City, without coordinating that decision with the whole metropolitan region because it all works together,” the governor said Saturday at his own, separate, news conference following de Blasio’s.

“I understand the mayor’s position, which he wants to close them until June,” Cuomo continued. “And we may do that, but we’re going to do that in a coordinated sense with the other localities, it makes no sense for one locality to take one location that’s not coordinated with the others.”

When pressed by a reporter about what his stance means for the approximately 1.1 million kids in the New York City public school systems, teachers, and their parents, Cuomo said: “He didn’t close them, and he can’t open them, it happened on a metropolitan-wide basis, and we’ll act on a metropolitan basis.”

The city would normally have the jurisdiction to close its schools. But Cuomo issued an executive order on March 18 which required state approval for any local ordinances. Cuomo also issued an order that said schools would be closed statewide until April 29, at which point the closures would be reevaluated.

A spokesperson for Cuomo’s office said the governor is continuing to look at the question of schools with the facts and information available, but that he is looking at the issue with the entire state — and with what the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut choose to do — in mind.

Freddi Goldstein, de Blasio’s press secretary, pushed back after Cuomo’s press conference. “The Governor’s reaction to us keeping schools closed is reminiscent of how he reacted when the Mayor called for a shelter in place. We were right then and we’re right now,” Goldstein wrote on Twitter. “Schools will remain closed, just like how we eventually — days later — moved to a shelter in place model.” (Vox reached out to the mayor’s office, and will update with any response.)

It is true Mayor de Blasio wanted to issue a shelter-in-place order in mid-March, a move which Cuomo initially rejected, only to announce a statewide stay-at-home order days later.

And now, here the state and city are again in disagreement — this time, with schools.

New York City schools are out for the — to be determined?

New York City announced the closing of its public schools, and a shift to online learning, after many other districts, including Los Angeles, had already made the decision to shutter.

Mayor de Blasio, in particular, had been hesitant to close the nation’s largest school system because of concerns about child care and other services. Officials worried that many frontline and essential workers, including health care and transit workers, would not have a child care alternative.

New York City schools chancellor Richard A. Carranza called shuttering schools the “last resort” because of the hundreds of thousands of low-income students who rely on public schools for meals and other services, including more than 100,000 homeless students. Officials also had concerns about computer or internet access for thousands of students if they had to learn remotely — a serious problem that’s not been fully resolved.

But amid pressure from the teachers’ union, and as the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak escalated by the day, the city really had no choice but to close the school system.

The announcement of that closure was somewhat haphazard, too. According to the New York Times, as the city prepared to announce the closing of schools, Cuomo basically preempted it, saying in a press conference on Sunday, March 15, that he wanted NYC schools, along with those in Westchester and Long Island, to close, and then called on the city to announce a plan within 24 hours to provide food and child care.

Later that day, de Blasio made his own announcement that schools were to officially close on March 16, and that teachers planned to resume classes through remote learning March 23. He also said until that time, schools would provide grab-and-go meals for students to pick up. (As of this week, the schools have expanded the program, providing food to anyone in need.)

“Our first attempt to reopen public schools will be Monday, April 20,” de Blasio said at the time. “We may not have the opportunity to reopen them in this full school year.”

That deadline is approaching (and Cuomo’s order has schools closed statewide through April 29), but rather than offering clarity, there’s just more confusion.

De Blasio said pretty definitely on Saturday that schools would remain shut for the rest of the year, with teachers relying on remote learning, calling the decision “heartbreaking,” while acknowledging that the city still needs to help connect more students to internet-enabled devices.

“This is a public health decision — and not an easy one,” de Blasio said. “But it’s the right one. The social distancing strategies have been working, and we cannot risk a resurgence of the virus.”

De Blasio added that he had come to the conclusion after speaking with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. Fauci has previously cautioned against opening schools too early in places where the coronavirus outbreak is not yet under control.

But shortly after de Blasio’s decision, Cuomo said: not so fast.

An official in the governor’s office said the mayor’s office called about five minutes before de Blasio’s press conference, indicating that the mayor wanted to discuss school closings — not that he was going to announce it Saturday morning. Goldstein, the mayor’s press secretary, said when the mayor had made the decision to close schools, “had informed the Governor (called and texted). Our staff also spoke. We told the public.”

It is really difficult to imagine New York City’s schools — or even the surrounding areas — opening up schools again this academic year. New York City remains the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in the United States, with more than 98,700 confirmed cases and more than 5,700 deaths as of April 11. Though hospitalizations and ICU admissions are beginning to stabilize, the death toll in the state still remains staggering, with hundreds dying daily. And Cuomo and de Blasio actually do agree on one thing: the social distancing measures and restrictions cannot be eased anytime soon.

More than a dozen states have already announced closures through at least the end of the academic year, including Washington state and California. As the United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew put it Saturday: “Keeping school buildings closed is the right decision — regardless of who is responsible.”

The mayor and governor are feuding. Welcome to New York.

Over the years (yes, years), Cuomo and de Blasio have never really tried to hide their apparent dislike for each other. They’ve fought over everything from public housing to snowstorms — and have definitely had disagreements about schools before. And let us never, ever forget the Harlem deer.

The unprecedented emergency of the coronavirus has done little to temper the tensions between the mayor and the governor. The two continue to hold separate press conferences daily; they haven’t appeared together in more than a month. Their one joint coronavirus press conference happened on March 2, the day after New York City confirmed its very first coronavirus case.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and New York State Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker hold a news conference on the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in New York on March 2.
David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

As the New York Times reported in their deep dive on New York’s handling of the crisis, that “though the two leaders put up a unified front at the outset of the outbreak, it was clear by the middle of March that a high-stakes version of their longstanding political battles was playing out.”

The question of closing schools was one of the first areas over which the two disagreed, and they’ve also clashed publicly on the question of a stay-at-home order for New York City.

Cuomo has said repeatedly that he’s trying to coordinate responses in New York state with those of New Jersey and Connecticut, and any plan to try to alter current restrictions must involve both a statewide and regional response. But often, that critical coordination seems absent when it comes to communication between New York City and Albany.

Perceptions have also diverged on how the two leaders have handled the crisis in New York overall. Cuomo’s press conferences have become national viewing. His fact-based presentation (complete with lots of Powerpoint slides) contrast with President Donald Trump’s freewheeling and fact-free presentations, and Cuomo — who has a reputation as a hard-charging and skilled operator — has followed up his formal addresses with folksy and empathetic appeals (sometimes paired with slam-poetry-esque slides) that have become oddly soothing to a city and state facing a profound trauma.

De Blasio — though he has tried to push more aggressive measures since the scope of the crisis became clear in mid-March — has faced sharper critiques. In particular, he has gotten pushback for some seemingly tone-deaf actions during the pandemic, such as going to his YMCA gym in Brooklyn when the city was shutting down and continuing to take his weekend walks in Prospect Park, in Brooklyn, though he currently lives in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

New York is still in the middle of a crisis, but in any postmortem of the catastrophe, both of the leaders’ potential missteps will be closely examined: de Blasio encouraging New Yorkers to go about their routines after the first coronavirus case was detected, Cuomo waiting to issue stay-at-home orders. The continued breakdown of their relationship might factor in, too.

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