New Yorkers Blast School Decision

By Louise Dewast and Sybile Penhirin

A mother and her son walk nearby PS87 on 78th street and Columbus Avenue. The school remained open today and did not cancel any classes. However, students could not use the playground as it was not cleared of snow and children watched a movie in the auditorium instead of playing outside.

A mother and her son walk nearby PS87 on 78th street and Columbus Avenue. The school remained open on Thursday and did not cancel any classes. However, students could not use the playground as it was not cleared of snow and children watched a movie in the auditorium instead of playing outside. Credits: Sybile Penhirin

As snowstorm number six, Snowstorm Pax, buried New York Thursday morning with more than 10 inches of snow, parents, teachers and even some city officials slammed the mayor’s decision to keep the city’s public schools open.

“This is ridiculous,” said John Rodriguez as he and his 4-year old daughter tried to avoid large puddles and heaps of snow on their way to PS-9 on 84th and Columbus Avenue. “It’s hard to get around and it’s very dangerous for our kids. A driver could lose control of his vehicle and slide into the sidewalk.”

Rodriguez’s anger echoed through the city Thursday as thousands of public school parents complained—to each other, to city officials and on social media—about Mayor Bill de Blasio and School Chancellor Carmen Farina’s decision to keep public schools open despite near-blizzard conditions Thursday morning.  Even weatherman Al Roker got into the act, criticizing the mayor for his decision on Twitter.

But at a mid-morning news conference at the city’s Office of Emergency Management in Brooklyn, as reporters bombarded him with questions on the matter, de Blasio defended the decision, arguing that the earlier the city makes the call, even one based on incomplete and imperfect information, the easier it is for parents of public school children to plan accordingly.

“We have a state mandate to run a school system,” the mayor said, as he explained the reasoning behind his and School Chancellor Farina’s decision. “We knew based on reports that we could have as little as three inches on the ground by the time school opened,” he said, adding “we were convinced that students could get to school safely this morning.”

He added that closing the New York City public school system is a rare occurrence, pointing out that the city has only shut it down 11 times since 1978. “It is a rarity and something that we do not take lightly,” he argued. “I am comfortable with our decision, and considering the outcomes it was the right decision.”

City hall also came under fire during the last “polar vortex” for not closing down schools due to the extreme cold.

New York Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina also argued that this week’s decision was correct.  “Kids regress two days of education if they miss one day of school. Tonight they’ll go back home knowing something new, and that’s what’s important,” she told reporters. “Many of our kids don’t get a hot lunch and, in many cases, breakfast, unless they go to school.”

“My decision is where the kids are safest and the most taken care of, and the answer to that is in schools,” she said.

Some parents like Lynn Sanchez, a parent leader and a paralegal, understood the logic of the chancellor’s argument.  “I don’t have the luxury of just taking a day off.  If I don’t go to work than I don’t get paid for this day,” she said.

Sanchez sent her children to school Thursday morning to a charter school in Harlem, but then she received a call from the school that they would be released two hours earlier than usual. “At least they got breakfast, they got lunch, they are in school, and most importantly they are learning,” Sanchez said.

Many parents however, weren’t buying that line of thinking at all.

“They should have closed the school or at least make it start later because even if we live a couple of blocks away, it’s very hard to come here with the stroller,” said Eunju Chung, as she was picking her one-year-old daughter from PS-9 around lunch time, struggling to navigate the slushy sidewalk. “And I have to come back at 3.p.m to pick up my other kid.”

Some parents did not even bother to make the trek to school. According to estimates from the Department of Education, student attendance was 44.6 percent in New York. While the public school system was open, dozens of private schools in the city and the schools in the Catholic archdiocese closed down.

School buses wait for students to get out of school on 77th street and Columbus Avenue. Many parents said they feared it was not safe to send their kids to school as drivers might slide because of the snow.

School buses wait for students to get out of school on 77th street and Columbus Avenue. Many parents said they feared it was not safe to send their kids to school as drivers might slide because of the snow. Credits: Sybile Penhirin

State Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island) said parents were right to be angry.”The danger associated with requiring students to navigate this storm to get to school far outweighs the benefit of keeping school open,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “Clearly conditions are dangerous and roads around schools are barely passable. Opening schools today, with conditions like this, is just wrong.”

In his news conference, however, the mayor insisted that the city functioned effectively.  According to the mayor, 475 salt spreaders took to the streets beginning at midnight Wednesday, 1,900 plows were out since the early morning hours. in total, he reported, 2,300 city employees and 800 emergency snow workers were on duty to make streets and transport as safe as possible. The MTA and 7,700 school buses were also operating. Even so, the mayor urged drivers to stay off the streets.

The streets of New York were, nevertheless, chaotic. Pictures and videos have been posted all over social media: in this (unverified) video, a school bus slid down a snowy road. This picture posted this morning on Twitter shows a car accident involving a school bus.

“I don’t understand why de Blasio tells drivers to avoid the roads and then sends kids to school, it doesn’t make sense and it’s dangerous,” said Allison Paulino as she was picking her son from PS 166 on 89th  Street near Columbus Avenue. Paulino said de Blasio made the decision too soon and that it ended up being a poor judgment. “He should have waited until 4.a.m or 5.a.m. like Bloomberg did,” she said.  Paulino said the school staff had told her about 145 out of approximately 600 students had showed up to class Thursday morning.

Even principals and teachers complained publicly. Laura Hess, a school principal on Staten Island posted the following on Facebook: “Stating that we should stay off the road in the same sentence as “schools are open” is ridiculous. Parents should not feel pressured to send students to school because it is open.”

And the United Federation of Teachers president, Michael Mulgrew, joined the crowds of angry parents and teachers, saying he understood the desire to keep schools open.  “The only thing that trumps that is safety,” he said. “Having students, parents and staff traveling in these conditions was unwarranted. It was a mistake to open schools today.”

Only a coordinated decision between the mayor, the school chancellor, the Department of Sanitation, the Office of Emergency Management and the Police Department, all must decide together to call a snow day. According to reporting by WNYC, the decision is based on the combination of snow accumulation, temperature and windchill, “though there are no specific thresholds for each.”

With reporting by Annie Wu  on the Lower East Side and Lucia De Stefani in Harlem.

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