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New York City Mayor Warns Schools Might Need To Close Next Week

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

All right. So as the U.S. heads into what looks like the worst stage of the coronavirus pandemic so far, the question of whether to keep schools open has become one flashpoint. It has divided parents, teachers and experts. In the past week, Detroit announced it would close schools until at least January. New York City's mayor has said schools there could close as soon as Monday. Anya Kamenetz from NPR's education team is following this and joins us now.

Hi, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: First, give us a picture of what's happening with schools nationally across the country.

KAMENETZ: I think one thing you can say is that there's not a lot of correlation between what the virus is doing and whether or not schools are open. So you have some hotspots that are staying open as much as possible and other places, especially in cities, where the cases might be lower, but all the schools are closed.

SHAPIRO: You're in New York City, where there's been a lot of debate. Tell us more about what's going on there.

KAMENETZ: So here, the nation's largest school system, fewer than a third of the city's students are actually attending school in person right now, but they're pretty passionate about it. And Mayor Bill de Blasio had promised that when the city hit a 3% positivity rate on the tests, the COVID tests, that he would close all the schools. And he signaled today that that threshold is pretty much coming up, potentially as soon as Monday. And I talked to Daniela Jampel (ph). She's a working mother of two in Washington Heights who created a petition to keep schools open that's got about 6,000 signatures so far.

DANIELA JAMPEL: It's frankly ridiculous that you can go to a restaurant and have someone serve you a pizza indoors, but my child is being deprived of an education.

SHAPIRO: Anya, what does the science actually say about how much spread of the virus is happening in classrooms?

KAMENETZ: Well, there's evolving data, therefore evolving scientific opinion. But what you hear pretty consistently is that if you have masking, if you have some distancing, handwashing, keeping groups of children apart, that school itself can be a pretty safe environment, especially with children younger than 10 who may be less likely to transmit the virus.

There's some caveats to this, of course. Not every school district in the United States necessarily has the funds to do proper social distancing or disinfecting. And where researchers have told us they have seen outbreaks is with things like high school athletics and informal gatherings of kids outside of school. So the message is very much there. Keep masking, keep distancing if you want to keep schools open.

SHAPIRO: Sounds like a lot of conflicting priorities for leaders to juggle.

KAMENETZ: Yes, definitely. And I think that's, you know - it's part of what makes this virus so painful. You have people pointing out there are cities with closed schools and open restaurants. And the virus poses the greatest danger to older people, as we know, including many teachers in that category. Meanwhile, children are being asked to stay home where they have very unequal access to remote learning by income and by race. And they're missing out on big chunks of their education. I want to bring in a pediatrician's perspective from Seattle Children's Hospital. Here's Dimitri Christakis.

DIMITRI CHRISTAKIS: Everybody says, well, we can't send kids to school if it's going to cost lives. But in fact, not sending kids to school also costs lives.

SHAPIRO: Anya, explain how not sending kids to school also costs lives. What argument is he making there?

KAMENETZ: So in this new paper, he's arguing that, of these millions of kids who have essentially missed big chunks of their school lives, some will not graduate high school. And we know, Ari, that less educational attainment means to - means shorter lives down the road for a whole host of reasons. You're more likely to drink, smoke, have heart disease, to work in more dangerous occupations. So in terms of these kids' futures, of our kids' futures in this country, there are just really tough things to consider on both sides here.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Anya Kamenetz, thank you.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.