BETWEEN THE LINES: With possibly the worst storm of the season, packed with heavy snow, sleet and rain racing up the East Coast, flights were grounded and government offices to the south of the city closed, but late last Wednesday Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Education (DOE) decided that public schools would open the following day. Hours earlier, severe winter storm warnings and advisories had been issued from Georgia to Maine, with thousands of school districts closed ahead of the storm’s leading edge. But New York City parents went to bed dazed and confused, because public school students were expected to be in school Thursday morning.
The mayor’s and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s decision was, at best, illogical and, at worst, irresponsible. With a raging winter storm coming to chill the Big Apple, nearly every community on the Eastern seaboard was prepared for the worst, yet they decided that students could risk the frightening weather outdoors in order to get some readin’, ’ritin’ and ’rithmetic.
Even as New York’s Office of Emergency Management issued a hazardous travel advisory for Thursday, which encouraged citizens to avoid roads and use mass transit, and alternate side parking rules were suspended to accommodate removal of the new fallen snow, the freshman mayor refused to close schools.
More levelheaded officials in states in the path of the raging storm, closed public and private schools in communities projected to be slammed by the approaching weather.
Throughout the day, fuming parents and teachers flooded the DOE’s Facebook page and other media sites, condemning the mayor and the schools chancellor, especially since weather advisories warned of heavy snow by dawn Thursday.
By the time the mayor’s press briefing was underway midday, one cannot help but wonder where Fariña got her meteorological facts. In an attempt at damage control, she made a glaring faux pas when she stated, “It’s absolutely a beautiful day out there right now,” even as the weather outside had only slightly abated.
Not long after the weather gaffe, Fariña’s office announced that a meeting she was scheduled to attend in Brooklyn was canceled “due to inclement weather.”
Surely by then, parents were probably ready to fit de Blasio and Fariña for dunce caps and suggest they each write one hundred times on a blackboard, “I will not fib about the weather,” before boning up on weather prediction.
The mayor also blundered when he stated he would have needed “a guarantee of a foot of snow” before he’d close schools. He later admitted that the snow came faster than expected during the morning rush hour. Even a sixth grader knows the weather forecast is not guaranteed.
In office only six weeks, de Blasio candidly explained how city officials made “the right call,” in spite of dire weather predictions from every available source. Nevertheless, Mother Nature’s wrath proved them wrong — very wrong.
After consulting with officials, De Blasio said he was convinced students could safely get to school, adding, “Closing school is a very big deal with a lot of ramifications.”
In contrast, the mayor previously said, “If you do not need to drive, you will help yourself and everyone else by staying off the roads.”
Did the city’s travel advisory not apply to school buses?
Fariña said that the decision was largely due to this week’s five-day winter break, pointing out that closing schools would have left students days behind the DOE’s curriculum timetable.
A day earlier, she noted, “Travel conditions may be difficult, and families should exercise their own judgment when taking their children to school.”
United Federation of Teachers Union president Michael Mulgrew issued the kind of rational statement that should have come from de Blasio: “I understand the desire to keep schools open. The only thing that trumps that is safety. Having students, parents and staff traveling in these conditions was unwarranted. It was a mistake to open schools today.”
Keeping schools open put children and teachers trying to get to school at an unnecessary risk. Prudent parents, however, apparently used their better judgments and opted for a snow day, rather than send their children out into the storm. Attendance, reported by the DOE, for Thursday was less than 45 percent. Local media reported school buses driving around slippery city streets were empty or nearly empty. And, it was not hard to imagine teachers faced with a hazardous commute choosing to remain safe and warm at home, rather than navigate icy, snow-covered roads.
For the record, city public schools have closed only 11 times since 1978. So, despite all the condemnation, in this situation, Bill de Blasio pretty much performed like his predecessors in similar situations. Not that there’s anything right with that!
The mayor’s first six weeks have literally been snowed under. Before Thursday’s debate, de Blasio was criticized by Manhattan residents who felt their streets were ignored after one of January’s storms. Let’s call it Snowgate.
Perhaps when the mayor dropped Staten Island Chuck on Groundhog Day, it was an omen of things to come.
Watching the mayor weather the challenges of his first weeks in office, his decision-making has come under scrutiny. If Bill de Blasio can’t manage adversity better than he has the recent storms, the next four years could have more potholes than city streets. He has to learn not to get buried under predicaments from which even a snow plow couldn’t dig him out.
Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.
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