On snowy days, why poorer students need schools open

A school bus

A school bus makes its way down a snowy road in a Brooklyn neighborhood following a storm January 12, 2011 in New York City. A winter storm again struck snow-weary New York and much of the Northeast, though city efforts to clear the snow were increased and public schools stayed open. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio came under fire last week for keeping New York City public schools open during a brutal snow storm, there were many who harshly judged his decision.

Most famously, Al Roker of the Today show, blasted de Blasio — mere weeks into his first term — as making such a poor choice that he doubted the mayor would win re-election.

“Talk about a bad prediction,” the television weather anchor said over Twitter about the mayor’s handling of events. “Long range DiBlasio forecast: 1 term.”

Why keep schools open?

But what many don’t realize is that, in exchange for some students making their slippery way to school during difficult weather, thousands of other children and their families were positively impacted by the decision to keep the schools’ services available.

“It’s a very complicated issue, definitely, because in one breath, school is supposed to be a place for educating students, to get them college and career ready,” a New York City school administrator who preferred to remain anonymous told theGrio. “But on the other hand, because New York City has the largest school system, with a diverse set of students, a lot of them low-income students, we have to meet the needs of the whole child, not just the academic.”

The administrator went on to explain that for many kids in New York City, “the nutritional, and emotional needs of students,” are of primary concern to public school educators, taking a necessary precedence in order “to get them to that academic piece.”

In fact, the nutritional needs for many low-income students are significantly satisfied by the schools within a structured environment that many parents cannot afford to replicate on short notice, if at all.

Numerous students need free lunch

According to statistics gathered by the City of New York, 78 percent of New York City public school students are eligible for a free, or reduced-price lunch. This amounts to 851,721 kids, compared to the 860,000 meals served a day.

Eighty-two percent of children in kindergarten through fifth grade are illegible for the free lunch program, the city’s youngest kids.

To receive these meals, a family’s annual income must fall below 175 percent of the federal poverty level of $23,550 for a family of four. That’s just $41,212.50.

Thirteen percent of students live in areas where the median income is actually below the poverty line. These are the types of families for whom one missed day of school likely means missed meals for their kids, or an economic scramble to make up for lost sustenance.

“I think that school closings can be seen in a larger perspective,” the administrator told theGrio. “I’ve seen students — as a classroom teacher and as an administrator — that don’t eat if they don’t come to school.”

Keeping kids safe in urban communities

Families of such limited means likely do not have the option of dependable, replacement childcare for snow emergencies, or providing it would be a severe burden.

For these students, exposure to unsafe environments would be far more unequivocal than the possible issues of commuting through messy precipitation. This would actually be preferable in many instances to the other option — a lack of professional adult supervision, which in urban areas can entail many dangers.

Some students have no families to fall back on. Last year, New York City public schools served almost 78,000 homeless children. Where would they go on a snow day?

“I think what ends up happening is that we see the necessity of safety,” our source explained regarding what can happen when poorer students are kept out of schools. “So when it comes to the point of school closings, parents will definitely be needing the school as an institution not only for education, but also for support and safety.”

Solutions to the snow day conundrum

In analyzing the mayor’s decision, both experts and everyday citizens have offered some ideas for how the numerous services provided by schools could be replicated during snow days.

Consortia of area churches, private day care centers, and non-profits could open their doors to provide replacement oversight for children in secure environments.

Food vouchers could be handed out to families at the beginning of each semester in anticipation of the inclement weather that could bar children’s access to lunchrooms in the advent of storms. Teachers and principals could prepare work packets in advance so that learning can continue from home.

But until these ideas are possibly implemented, critics of Mayor de Blasio and Carmen Fariña, the schools chancellor, need to keep in mind the vast array of considerations that are being juggled in determining what is best for their city’s children.

“School doesn’t serve as just an institution for learning,” our source inside said. “It serves as a social institution to support the other needs for low income communities.”

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter @lexisb