ALBANY – New York has no immediate plans to shutter its public schools on a statewide basis as the coronavirus continues to spread, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday.
With the coronavirus spreading and some states choosing to temporarily shutter their school systems, Cuomo said New York will leave it up to local officials to decide whether to act in their own districts.
If things get worse, the state could step in.
But until then, closing schools will remain a "local decision" — so long as they haven't had a student test positive for COVID-19, Cuomo said.
“That’s a local decision," he told reporters who asked if he was considering closing schools. "The state rule is if a child tests positive, the school must close for 24 hours.”
Cuomo's decision against closing schools come as the state is implementing dramatic measures to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus, including an indefinite ban on gatherings of more than 500 people.
The number of confirmed cases grew to 421 in New York on Friday, an increase of 96 from the day before. That number is expected to continue to spike as the state greatly increases its testing capacity in hopes of conducting 6,000 tests per day next week.
Cuomo said closing schools is "a very difficult decision" and that many factors need to be considered.
He pointed to children missing out on education and said closing schools would strain parents, many of whom work in the public health sector and are needed as the state continue to combat the virus.
And many children are dependent on school lunch programs to eat.
"A lot of children are receiving breakfast and lunch at school. How do you get all of those meals to all of those kids when they're not in school?" Cuomo said at a press briefing Friday.
Also on Friday, Cuomo signed an executive order that said schools will not lose state aid if they don't hit 180 days of instruction for the year, the minimum required by the state. It applies to schools that are ordered to close by the state or a local health department.
Other states react
Six states — Ohio, Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico, Michigan and West Virginia — have temporarily closed schools in an attempt to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Some New York counties have decided to close schools on their own, including Orange, Dutchess, Herkimer and Ulster.
The New York City school system — the largest district in the country — has remained open, a move that has drawn criticism from the city's teachers union.
The Los Angeles school system, the country's second largest, announced Friday it would close for two weeks beginning Monday.
On Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he's in favor of keeping the schools open for now.
"I don't want to see kids miss weeks or months of school," de Blasio said during a Fox5 interview Friday. "It's where a lot of kids get their meals. A lot of kids who are less-advantaged really depend on the schools for meals."
Some elected officials and the city's teachers union are calling for schools to be closed.
"We don’t suggest this lightly. We understand the immense disruption this will create for our families," Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teacher, said in a statement.
"But right now more than a million students and staff crisscross the city every day on their way to schools, putting themselves and others at risk of exposure and increasing the likelihood of bringing exposure into their homes and communities."
New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Democrat, also called on schools to be closed in order to protect "the safety and well-being of the students, teachers, and staff."
"This is not an easy decision, but we must take aggressive measures to stop the spread of coronavirus/COVID-19. Teaching and learning cannot take place under these circumstances," Johnson said in a statement.
Concerns over distance learning
The state-level teachers union, meanwhile, stopped short of calling for a statewide school closure.
In a statement Friday evening, the New York State United Teachers union called on schools to close in counties where someone has tested positive for the coronavirus.
As of Friday afternoon, fourteen counties outside New York City had positive tests, according to Cuomo's office.
“With the coronavirus continuing to spread, we are calling on state and local health and school officials to take decisive action and proactively close all schools in counties where there are confirmed cases of this virus," said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta.
Meanwhile, New York's public university systems, SUNY and CUNY, will end most in-person classes beginning March 19, switching instead to a primarily online-based teaching model.
But NYSUT has raised concerns over reliable broadband access needed to transition from in-person to online learning and said some districts may not have the infrastructure in place needed to make the change.
"All of these resources — from learning materials to food — must be provided in an equitable way that meets the needs of every student in a school district regardless of their age, economic status and where they live," Pallotta said.