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NYC Schools Closed – What Happened?

March 18, 2020 pm31 8:32 pm

Cuomo announced that all New York State schools will be closed for two weeks. Nassau and Suffolk schools are closed. Sunday late afternoon de Blasio announced that NYC public schools will be closed through April 20…  But Sunday morning the landscape looked different.

My late conversion

I understand why people were minimizing things. They were afraid. Or they didn’t understand. Some early articles took an optimistic view of the spread or mortality. Trump’s stuff about the flu, it sounded plausible, especially if you did not want to face what was coming.

A week ago I was still minimizing.  Wednesday I coughed. I was in the Staff Room. I covered my cough with my hand. And got scolded and instructed to go wash immediately. I listened. (which I do not always do). And then a former student, Katie, working in Seattle, posted a “here’s why this is serious” article. There’s a few good ones going around. That was one of them. I read it. And read it again. The numbers made sense. And were scary. I felt a low-grade panic…

Wednesday night I starting sharing information with members via email (parent teacher conferences, etc). Thursday night a members texted; “de Blasio is delusional. The Union needs to put pressure on him to close the schools” and Friday morning I asked that member, with another activist, if we should do a petition.  And we did. Everyone signed.

Pressure to close schools mounts

Earlier a group had started a petition to Cuomo to close schools (people are still signing – count up to 337,000). And then there were articles, and calls by politicians, and petitions by other teachers, and parents, and medical experts. Other counties closed schools. Parochial schools closed. The CDC stepped up their school closure guidance.

There was pushback. There were concerns about healthcare workers, who we need at work, getting stuck with kids home. There was concern about getting meals to kids who depend on school lunch. There was even concern about kids out of school spreading the virus.


The UFT was generally on the right side, but slow to push and surprisingly timid when they did. Each new step the city or state took, the union did its normal job of protecting members’ CAR, right to sick days, etc. But the UFT was not in the forefront, at first, of the advocacy to close schools. They called on members to sign a petition – the UFT started one (people are still signing – count up to 160,000) a few days after the big one – and to call 311, but it took until Friday to see Mulgrew recommend de Blasio to “close the schools.” But even there, a member – pretty regular guy – in my school wrote me to complain “Why ‘recommend’? We should ‘demand!”

Communication was weak – with members learning about the union’s stance in the press, and hours or even a full day before getting direct communication from our union. And even when the UFT sounded like it was roaring, it wasn’t necessarily so – see this story about them suing to close the schools – it turned out that “City teachers to file labor complaint to try to shut schools” only applied to a handful of schools. To be fair, some mid-level leaders were much stronger – but you get judged by the guy at the top…


A number of teachers starting talking about a sickout. I heard rumors about Wednesday. I heard whispers about Monday. Several teachers, not normally involved in union politics, asked me about it. There was an organizing call – they had been invited. I count 14 people altogether, from a variety of schools and political or apolitical backgrounds, who spoke to me. The variety of people made me more interested. The mayor heard. The governor heard. The UFT president heard – and pushed back.

By the time the Sunday evening organizing call rolled around, most of the people I knew who had been interested, but not previously committed, had stepped back. I sensed that the moment had not arrived for such a huge step, and I explained to my members, and then to others, that I did not think we should do it Monday. But the organizers had made a point. Cuomo, de Blasio, and Mulgrew had noticed. The announcement about the UFT’s suit or restraining order or whatever it was, that was pushed by the threatened sickout. Cuomo was pushed by it. And eventually de Blasio got dragged along. But not right away. Even Sunday morning he was clutching onto what was clearly an untenable position. His own aides were threatening to quit. But it took more to move him.

1199 leads, Cuomo follows, de Blasio was last

1199 had opposed closing schools. But with the local politics rapidly unfolding, and more good medical reporting on what was happening elsewhere, and very clear explanations of “flattening the curve”, and discussion of how health care workers’ kids would be cared for, Sunday afternoon 1199’s President, George Gresham, issued a statement calling for the schools to be closed.

Cuomo, who is getting credit for being good on much of this Covid-19 stuff, had been wishy washy on schools. But he quickly followed suit.

And hours after defiantly, stupidly, and pigheadedly insisting schools would stay open, de Blasio folded. Sunday late afternoon it was done.


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