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COVID-19 Affects New York City Schools, Nation's Largest District

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How is the nation's largest school district managing this crisis? Richard Carranza is on the line. He is chancellor of the New York City schools - joins us from home. Good morning, sir.

RICHARD CARRANZA: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: You have officially said New York schools are closed until what date?

CARRANZA: The initial date is April 20. But we're being driven by the circumstances and the advice of our health commissioner and the state of New York. And as things are exploding across the state right now, it's looking more and more likely that we will finish the school year with learning at home.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about learning at home, particularly because of the kind of student body you have - huge, first off - more than a million students, if I'm not mistaken - and also of all kinds of incomes, including a lot of poor kids and immigrants. What are the challenges of learning at home?

CARRANZA: Well, for us, almost 80% of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch, so it's a poor student population, 1.1 million students. Obviously, the digital divide, which is students that have technology at home and those that don't, is a huge challenge. We estimate that of the 1.1 million students, about 300,000 students don't have the devices to learn remotely at home.

But the good news is - never waste a crisis - we're going to eliminate the digital divide. We've purchased 300,000 devices. We started delivering the first batch of those, 25,000 devices, to homeless shelters for our students that are homeless yesterday. We are going to continue on a rolling basis to deliver those devices over the next coming weeks. So within a month, we are going to eliminate the digital divide for the students in New York City - and then just giving advice to parents and students around, how do you do learning at home?

INSKEEP: I'm just feeling the dismay when we're telling people to stay home that you're talking about kids in homeless shelters. Is it inevitable that some kids are just going to drop out of sight in this process?

CARRANZA: Well, the good thing is that we have incredibly dedicated teachers and administrators in New York City. And we have a whole protocol worked out of how we're going to - I wouldn't call it take attendance, but we're going to check in with students to make sure we know where everyone is. The people that know their students the best are their teachers, so the teachers are absolutely on call to make sure that they know where their students are. They can check in with them on a daily basis.

And anybody that's not checking in, we're going to send people to find them and find out, where are you? Are you OK? What do you need? So again, we're building this plane as we're flying it, but we are very committed to making sure that we know where our students are and that they're being served.

INSKEEP: Is the poverty of the student body part of the reason that you, even though you're in this devastated area, waited several days longer than many other school districts around the country to announce you were closing?

CARRANZA: Well, again, that's a call that the mayor makes because he has to take into account what's happening not only with the school system, but the entire city, a city of almost 9 million people. But if you shut down the schools, then these are children of first responders, of health care workers, of sanitation workers. So it has a significant impact on the city if those people don't have somewhere for their children to be. So it was a very weighty decision.

And again, we followed the advice of the health care professionals, our commissioner of the Department of Health, the commissioner of health in New York state. And when the mayor made the decision to close the schools, it was after healthy consultation and a very, very serious look at how would we then serve the students of those first responders.

INSKEEP: As I'm sure you know, Chancellor, some school employees went to the New York Post and said that you'd waited too long, accused you of even making some efforts to hide some of the information as teachers grew sick. Do you regret any of your decisions and the mayor's decisions in those crucial days?

CARRANZA: No. No. 1, it's the Post? Really? But No. 2, you know, people that make those claims don't have the responsibility or the weight of responsibility of making these kinds of decisions. So again, we followed the advice of the health care professionals, the people, the epidemiologists that do this for a living. And again, when we made the decision to close the schools, when the mayor said, we're going to close the schools, we were ready to launch into remote learning and provide students with the ability to keep learning for however long we go.

INSKEEP: Chancellor, can you tell us something about Dez-Ann Romain, a New York City school principal who we're told is the first school employee in New York to have died from the coronavirus?

CARRANZA: She was absolutely a force to be reckoned with. She worked in one of our high schools for students that had left the system and come back to the system. She took no prisoners. And she made sure that her students had everything they needed to be successful, not only to get their high school diploma, but then to have options post-high school diploma - a tremendous loss to our community. And our heart just breaks for her. We're really feeling her loss.

INSKEEP: Chancellor, thanks for the time, really appreciate it.

CARRANZA: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Richard Carranza is chancellor of the New York City schools. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.