What to Know
- New York City schools will move all-remote Thursday, the mayor tweeted Wednesday, hours after he failed to show up for his scheduled 10 a.m. briefing; he said the city hit the 3% threshold
- The announcement came as Gov. Andrew Cuomo wrapped up a news briefing in which he said NYC could soon become an orange zone, which would close schools; additional restrictions also apply
- The developments come amid a U.S. COVID surge that has left no state untouched; cases have increased in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C. in the last 14 days. The death toll has topped 250k
Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that New York City schools will switch all-remote Thursday -- and until further notice -- after hitting his 3 percent rolling positivity rate threshold Wednesday following nearly a week of teetering on the brink.
“We’re going to fight this back,” de Blasio said. “This is a setback, but it’s a setback we will overcome.”
It comes as a painful about-face for the nation's largest public school system, which was one of the first major city school districts to bring students back to classrooms this fall. De Blasio, who formalized the New York City schools announcement in a live briefing five hours after his scheduled 10 a.m. press conference, said no one in his administration wanted to make the difficult decision.
"We are all, in fact, feeling very sad about this decision because so much good work has been put into keeping the schools open," he said. "Opening the schools when almost no other major school system in America opened, making them so safe, but we set a very clear standard and we need to stick to that standard."
Flanked by NYC Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, a very tardy de Blasio formalized the all-remote announcement in a live press conference, shortly after some principals and other administrators got a heads up. The rolling rate hit 3 percent on the dot — which is what the mayor attributed his hours-long delay to, saying they wanted to double check the numbers to ensure the threshold had been met. He also said he needed to coordinate with the governor so the city and the state have a strategy for reopening the schools, as the state has "ultimate authority."
More sweeping restrictions appear on tap for the five boroughs beyond just schools, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo prepared to transition the city to an orange zone if it meets his micro-cluster criteria. That bans indoor dining and closes gyms and salons, while also limiting capacity at houses of worship to 33 percent and private gatherings to 10 people, among other restrictions.
"The state has made very clear additional restrictions are coming and coming soon" to the entirety of the five boroughs, the mayor said in his afternoon briefing.
A short time before the mayor finally spoke, Cuomo said the city would become an orange zone under his micro-cluster strategy if its rolling positivity rate hits that same 3 percent benchmark. That closes schools for at least two weeks anyway; the "test out" that allows orange zone schools to return sooner would not apply in New York City. The governor said the sheer volume of students makes his testing requirements impossible; he said he would devise a new formula for NYC schools if needed.
However, the state's data put the city's seven-day rolling positivity rate at 2.5 percent, still under Cuomo's threshold to designate it an orange zone. But with the city's accounts of its metrics tending to run higher than the state's (and in this case hitting the 3 percent threshold), to whom do parents listen: state or city?
Even reporters present at Cuomo's briefing expressed their extensive confusion over the governor's Wednesday announcement. Cuomo seemingly snapped at one reporter who questioned what the plan going forward was and who suggested that parents may be just as confused from the mixed messaging.
"First off, try not to be obnoxious and offensive in your tone, these laws have all been in effect for months," Cuomo said to the reporter, as tensions boiled over. "(Parents) aren't confused, you're confused. Read the law, and you won't be confused."
On the issue of New York City schools in this particular case at this particular time, Cuomo deferred back to the city -- only after he was asked about de Blasio's tweet just as he was seemingly about to leave the briefing room.
"If the schools hit three percent in the city, I expect the mayor — who has said 57 times — if they hit three percent, we would close them," Cuomo said.
If the state's numbers show a city rolling positivity rate of 3 percent in the coming days, an orange zone can be expected. A new yellow zone was imposed on parts of the Bronx Wednesday, and a yellow zone was expanded in Queens; the threshold for the state to mark an area a yellow zone is a rolling seven-day 2.5 percent positivity.
The governor initially appeared taken aback by the news of de Blasio's tweet and the reporter's question about who in fact did have control of city schools.
"That is what the mayor always said ... we went through a very formal process, where I said, 'consult with the parents, make them part of it, have webchats, have webinars.' It only works if the parents are willing to send their children," Cuomo said. "That 3 percent the mayor set, in my opinion, in a collaborative with the parents. That was the agreement and the agreement should be honored."
Reporters then asked what the closure of NYC schools said about the state's COVID fight. Cuomo was seemingly irritated by the question.
"We are fourth in the United States of America," Cuomo said of the state's positivity rate. "Come to me with anything else that we're fourth (in) ... after having had the highest infection rate in the Unites States. New Yorkers are doing a great job, and don't demean them because the entire world is going up. It's disrespectful to New Yorkers."
The three percent benchmark the mayor set has drawn extensive criticism alone, with the governor also questioning it himself in the past. The positivity rate within New York City schools is below 0.2 percent — a number Cuomo says indicates schools are safer than New York City streets as far as COVID exposure risk.
On Wednesday, other public officials joined the chorus of those expressing their displeasure with using that level as a benchmark, including Brooklyn Borough President and NYC mayoral candidate Eric Adams, NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams — all of who said the sudden decision leaves families scrambling for alternatives for child care.
While de Blasio has stressed he would work to get schools and the more than one million impacted students back to in-person learning as quickly and safely as possible, little is known about the road back. He pledged Wednesday to provide more information on that in the coming days.
De Blasio has said he is open to incorporating different components, including new and increased in-school testing requirements, into whatever could become a reopening threshold rather than rely solely on one metric many argue is a poor barometer of in-person learning risk. It's not clear how long an all-remote move might last, though the mayor said schools will definitely remain closed through Thanksgiving.
Also an issue: getting students the necessary tools needed to participate in remote learning. Carranza said that more than 60,000 NYC students still need devices like laptops or iPads so they can get their lessons. That doesn't take into account students who do not have access to Wifi.
The union representing school principals and administrators, as well as the head of the city's largest teachers' union, both expressed support for the closure.
"The city established the 3 percent infection rate threshold to make sure that schools did not become centers to spread the coronavirus. Since the 3 percent rate has been reached, education will continue but all students will be learning remotely," United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said.
"Now it’s the job of all New Yorkers to maintain social distance, wear masks and take all other steps to substantially lower the infection rate so school buildings can re-open for in-person instruction," he added.
However, not all are happy with the news. A group of New York City public school families will hand-deliver a petition with 11,000 signatures to de Blasio and Cuomo on Thursday calling both to keep the schools open. The petition called the three percent threshold outdated and arbitrary, and in direct juxtaposition to the mayor's claims that the city's schools have been "extraordinarily safe."
After the closure was announced, the archdioceses of New York and Brooklyn both confirmed that their private schools will remain open for in-person learning. The Catholic schools said that they will close schools "on an as-needed, school-by-school basis."
Wednesday's whirlwind day for New York City parents marks the end of a nail-biting week. De Blasio first warned them Friday to have an alternative plan ready by Monday as the city came the closest it had in weeks to the 3 percent mark. The weekend came and went, and schools remained open through Wednesday, which will be the last day for some period of time.
As parents come off that anxiety-wrecked stretch, they embark on a new streak of anxiety as they find themselves struggling once again to balance their children and their livelihoods. The discomfort is eerily familiar to the initial challenges posed to families when New York City schools first shut down in mid-March, and it likely will only intensify in the coming weeks as the nation faces an ever-darkening phase of its war against the coronavirus.
Cuomo has warned New Yorkers for weeks that local numbers will rise amid the latest national COVID surge, one that saw the nation's death toll top 250,000 on Wednesday, according to NBC News data. His goal is to mitigate the increase, which appears to be an ever-escalating challenge. He issued a stern warning about the upcoming holiday and the gatherings that typically go along with it.
"You will see a tremendous spike after Thanksgiving," Cuomo said Wednesday. "That's my personal theory. It's going to happen because it's human behavior ... You know what love is on Thanksgiving? I love you so much and I'm so thankful for you, that I'm not going to see you."
The governor has imposed a 10-person limit on private home gatherings ahead of the holidays, as have the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut. All three governors have urged colleges to provide students testing before they leave campus for break, and encouraged them to utilize remote instruction to end the fall semester, thereby reducing travel and possible spread. Cuomo last week also imposed a 10 p.m. indoor service curfew on restaurants, gyms and businesses.
Parts of western New York, which has seen some of the most dramatic upticks in the state, are now under more restrictive “orange zone” restrictions after having been downgraded from the least onerous “yellow zone” restrictions. The governor said the high positivity rates there are due to people not taking the virus seriously enough, because they didn't see or feel the reality the city and surrounding areas dealt with in the spring.
Renewed restrictions could be coming across the board if the numbers continue to climb, the governor has said. And they have -- even before the dreaded holiday spike.
New York has averaged more than 4,700 new cases over the last six days, more than quadruple the number it was seeing at the end of October. Hospitalizations are climbing, too. The 2,202 total reported Wednesday is the highest since June 8. The daily death toll, which is a lagging indicator, is also slowly rising.
Treatment is more effective now than it was in the spring, which may reduce the death toll associated with this latest wave -- at least in certain parts of the country. But a renewed sense of anxiety, one that is all too familiar, is oversweeping the public once again as the holiday season fast approaches.
Coronavirus cases have increased in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C., the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam over the past 14 days. In a dozen of those states, including New York, infections have spiked in the last two weeks, meaning there has been a 100 percent or more increase in confirmed cases over the last 14 days. The U.S. death toll topped 250,000 Wednesday, by NBC News data.
The Empire State still holds the third- or fourth-lowest positivity rate in the nation on any given day, but that measure has become relative to the success it had in containing the virus over the summer, where it saw more than a full month of daily positivity rates below 1 percent. New York reported a 3.43 percent daily positivity rate Wednesday; the seven-day rolling average was at 2.9 percent.
Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region
Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here
The viral increases have been steeper in neighboring New Jersey, which also is testing at record levels. The Garden State's positivity rate has now topped 10 percent, Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday, calling that "unacceptably high."
On Wednesday, all but six of the state's 21 counties reported more than 100 new cases, state data showed. Five counties reported more than 300. Hospitalizations are at their highest levels since late May. The governor has warned additional statewide measures may be necessary to help curb the rampant spread. He doled out new indoor and outdoor capacity limitations Monday, days after issuing a new 10 p.m indoor service curfew for bars and restaurants.
Four mayors within the state's hardest-hit Essex County have agreed to impose a 24-hour shutdown if their numbers continue to worsen, one of the officials told News 4. If that doesn't work, they'll move to a three-day shutdown. A Murphy spokesperson says the mayors would need state permission to do either.
Small household gatherings have emerged as a key COVID driver in just the last month and a half. Cuomo has warned fervently of the so-dubbed "living room spread" daily for more than a week now.
"Large indoor dinners will spread COVID," the governor tweeted Wednesday. "Limit Thanksgiving to your immediate household. Gatherings over 10 people are not permitted. Spread thanks, not COVID."
The mantra has been to avoid travel and to avoid Thanksgiving gatherings as a general rule, but acknowledging many won't heed that advice, officials have suggested people wear masks even when with their own families. New Jersey's health commissioner said this week singing shouldn't be permitted and music should be low to avoid shouting, which could spew saliva -- and spread COVID.
No state has been untouched by the latest COVID surge. The White House task force bluntly stated in its latest weekly report that there is "now aggressive, unrelenting, expanding broad community spread across the country, reaching most counties, without evidence of improvement but rather, further deterioration."
Experts say life in the U.S. won't return to any semblance of normalcy until there is an effective and widely available vaccine. That may not happen for months, despite encouraging news from two vaccine front-runners this week.
The latest highlight came Wednesday when Pfizer said final analysis found its vaccine 95 percent effective. The pharmaceutical company said it plans to submit an emergency approval application to the FDA "within days." Moderna also plans to seek emergency approval for its vaccine in the coming weeks.
Mitigation measures may be needed well beyond any vaccine rollout anyway. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, says people should not abandon masks or social distancing even after they've been vaccinated.
"Even though, for the general population, it might be 90[%] to 95% effective," Fauci said, reporting to effectiveness rates shown in Pfizer and Moderna trials, "you don't necessarily know, for you, how effective it is."
Up to 10 percent of immunized people could still get the virus, even at those high success rates, CNBC reported.