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Sixty-three Department of Education employees have died from the coronavirus.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio shut down New York City’s public schools March 15, a week after the state had declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus.

Leading up to the decision, teachers and administrators reported unsanitary conditions, a lack of soap and cleaning supplies, and cases of infected teachers.

As of Monday, 63 Department of Education employees, including 25 teachers, had died from the coronavirus.

Emily James, a public high school teacher in Brooklyn, New York, said she’s distraught over the number of colleagues she’s lost.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

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“Miss, if anything ever happened to you, I don’t know what I would do.”

I can’t count the times I’ve heard my students utter those words to me during my 14 years as a public high school teacher in New York City. I know it’s not because I’m some kind of Wonder Woman of an educator. It’s because, like most teachers, I love my students fiercely, and they feel it and need it.

When I know a student is having a bad day, I laugh at their jokes or tell them one of my own. I bring cupcakes for birthday celebrations. I have long talks with students’ parents on the phone. 

That love is why the recent deaths of 63 New York City Department of Education employees, including 25 teachers, from the coronavirus, hit so hard. To put that figure into perspective, 13 New York City firefighters and police officers have died from the disease. But we are not first responders, at least not technically.  

For me, the teacher and school personnel deaths have brought another level of heartbreak. I look at the pictures of each teacher, paraprofessional, or counselor smiling, and all those smaller faces of students who love them appear in my mind. Students who won’t get to grieve together or have their questions answered, who will wait for them to appear the next week and the week after, and never see them again.

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The next thing I can’t help but see is Mayor Bill de Blasio. While I’m unable to fully understand what it entails to run a city, to make decisions of such magnitude everyday, I do believe that he chose wrong, and his choices were fatal. 

Teachers and administrators pleaded with the city to close schoolsNew York declared a state of emergency on March 7. Mayor Bill De Blasio waited until March 15 to close schools.

YouTube/Screenshot

In early March, when there were already reports of community spread of the novel coronavirus in New York City, teachers and administrators begged and fought for our, and our students’, safety to be upheld and for de Blasio to close schools. More than 375,000 people signed a Change.org petition beseeching the mayor to cancel school, and teachers planned a mass “sickout” to protest. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency in New York on March 7. But schools remained open. 

De Blasio repeatedly said he was reluctant to cancel school because of the thousands of students who rely on the meals they get during the school day. For many, those breakfasts and lunches are what they subsist on. But that wasn’t reason enough to put the lives of teachers and students at risk.

The mayor needed to look no further than California and Washington at that point, states that shuttered schools in early March and got waivers from the USDA to distribute to-go meals at designated pick-up locations. 

It was such a feasible solution that De Blasio ended up doing just that. People in need can now pick up three meals a day at more than 400 distribution sites across the city. 

De Blasio’s office did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Schools didn’t have the manpower or supplies to be ‘deep cleaned’ 

De Blasio’s decision to keep schools open meant 1.1 million students and their 76,000 teachers continued to go to school, commuting to and from on public transportation, sitting in filthy classrooms, without Clorox wipes or hand sanitizer. There were claims that the schools were being “deep cleaned,” but those claims were laughable.

At my school, custodians were already overworked. I heard the same from many of my colleagues. Teachers were scrubbing their own floors, doorknobs, and desks with whatever supplies they could find. Kids were coughing into their hands, and onto each other, and us as they asked to try to find more tissues and soap, but the bathrooms were out.

There wasn’t enough manpower or supplies to foster a clean and safe environment.

It was impossible for students to practice social distancing while school was in session.

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Social distancing was impossible to enforce among children and teens 

The hallways at my Brooklyn school were packed between classes, gym classes were jammed with students playing in close contact, and cafeterias were crammed with kids eating together. Social distancing was something that one could only dream of. Students were living in germ incubation centers, then going home to their multi-generational families, where they could easily spread the disease. 

By the time the mayor decided to shutter schools on March 15, it was too late. The explosion in cases among DOE employees — despite the order to shelter in place since then — drives home how dangerous those last few days were. 

After schools were closed, teachers were told to report to work for 3 more days

Even after we fought and finally convinced de Blasio — albeit too late — that school should no longer be in session, he instructed all public school teachers in New York City to report to work for three more days. The city conducted trainings for teachers to set up online classrooms.

Teachers, like me, who didn’t report to work those days and worked from home, had to use our sick days. We were penalized even though we were busy setting up our remote classrooms, organizing assignments, and reaching out to parents from a place we felt safe. My husband is high-risk, and I couldn’t afford to put myself or my family in danger again. 

Even after schools were closed, teachers were told to report to work for three more days.

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But what did most other teachers do? They showed up. Pregnant teachers, elderly teachers, young teachers with full lives ahead of them. They reported to work when all non-essential workers were told to stay home.

When they arrived, many teachers told me they were given little to no instruction, and that the program could’ve been accomplished remotely. 

Schools are now closed at least through the end of the year. But teachers continue to teach every day and students continue to learn. I continue to show up to virtual staff meetings, fearing that one of my colleagues will not be there. I anxiously await the next email or text message about the next single parent whose has died, or the uncle or aunt had to be taken off the ventilator, cases that could have likely been contracted from students at my school. 

A padlock and chain are fixed to a gate leading to New Rochelle High School that is closed due to COVID-19 concerns, Friday, March 13, 2020, in New Rochelle, N.Y.

John Minchillo/AP

The catastrophic effect of this slow response will not be forgotten.

The DOE is currently under investigation for trying to sweep coronavirus illnesses among its educators under the rug, for instructing principals not to report virus cases to the Department of Health, and for ignoring unsanitary conditions.

Regardless of whether the mayor is found culpable, that won’t bring comfort to our grieving community.

Because so many students are living the nightmare of “not knowing what to do” because a teacher they loved is gone. 

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