On March 15 of last year, I wrote an article in these pages called, “Hey, De Blasio, Close The Freakin’ New York City Schools.” I wasn’t alone; similar pieces were penned by many others on both sides of the partisan aisle, and honestly, it seemed to make a lot of sense at the time. I now know I was wrong, and I think I have a pretty good idea of the reasons why.
My basic argument a year ago was that we didn’t know much about the virus or how it might spread in schools. A temporary pause made sense to me, especially since the New York City school districts had not had a single snow day at that point. It seemed like a slam-dunk to shut down for a few days until we could catch our bearings. What I had failed to take into account back then, among other things, were the teachers unions.
By the late summer, I was working on a book on the lockdowns and talking with local New York elected officials. What I began to suspect, and what these officials told me was possible — in fact, even likely — was that Mayor Bill de Blasio was reticent to close the schools because once he rang that bell on schools, he would not be able to un-ring it, owing to the power of the unions. I can’t know that for sure because I haven’t spoken to the mayor, and he might not want to say it anyway, but I highly suspect it.
I don’t think many of us imagined a year ago that in so many districts across the country these unions would maintain so much obstinacy regarding opening, even after the science, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sounded the all-clear. It remains arguably the most cynical action taken by any person or group during the pandemic. That we are still going through it in many parts of the country is unconscionable.
Even in the face of the unbelievable harm the school closures have reaped on our kids, the teachers unions were implacable, all while claiming to put the children first. Nothing has seemed capable of penetrating their steely shell. I’m sure oceans of ink will be spilled for a very long time about the rank selfishness of that, but it speaks to something broader as well, something we have learned in lockdown.
Some things once begun are difficult to stop. I understand and probably still agree with the initial lockdown, at least in New York City. Things were in fact very scary, and we really didn’t know if hospital capacity could keep up. Most people I have talked to — from politicians, to restaurant owners, to journalists — thought we were looking at a month at the most. Somehow it became a year.
How that happened is complicated. It absolutely had to do with handing total emergency power over to governors who were loathe to take of that crown. But it was more than that; it was fear. Much of that fear was manufactured. Yes, the government and the media were far too slow to inform us of the true, relatively low risks from COVID-19 to most Americans. Maybe they thought we couldn’t handle that truth, but there was also real reason to be scared of it, if not for ourselves, then for others.
Fear should be a motivator. That is right and proper. It is almost certainly why fear exists as either a feature of evolution, a gift from God, or both. But when fear comes to paralyze us, when we get stuck in the rut of a single choice because that choice abates those feelings of fear, we make mistakes, often-costly ones. And we made a lot of those in this past year.
Obviously, now we know the schools should be open, but they aren’t because of the mendacity and greed of teachers unions — but I am also to blame. I really didn’t think it through when I arrogantly demanded that the schools shut down last year. I jumped on what seemed like an obvious bandwagon. That was a mistake, and it is one I will endeavor to avoid going forward.