Snowed Under: When Keeping Schools Open Puts Low-Income Students Further Behind

New York City’s public schools may provide hot lunches, but keeping them open in a snowstorm does no good if students aren’t able to attend.

On January 22, New York City saw its third major snowstorm in just three weeks. Despite nearly a foot of snow in the city and treacherous travel conditions, NYC Department of Education Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced schools would remain open. Even so, just 47 percent of New York City’s 1 million public school children made it to school that day.

Last week, as another snowstorm made its way toward the New York City metro area, Fariña and de Blasio repeated that decision, simultaneously proclaiming travel hazardous and schools open. This time attendance was even lower at less than 45 percent.

Fariña has defended her decision to keep schools open in these bleak conditions by arguing that it is critical for the many poor students who depend on school for hot meals. But her argument is misguided, as it fails to acknowledge that those very students are the ones who have the greatest difficulty getting to school in inclement weather. Most are more likely to live and/or attend school in the outer boroughs of New York City. The Bronx and Brooklyn, home to the highest percentage of NYC K-6 public school students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, suffer from greater lack of access to public transportation and slower snow clean-up, which makes getting to school all the more difficult.

Source: New York State Well Being Indicators for 2010-2011 school year.Source: New York State Well Being Indicators for 2010-2011 school year.

Aside from the physical danger it creates, keeping schools open when students can’t get there only serves to put these students further behind academically. As the Education Week blog pointed out after the January 22 snowstorm, keeping schools open despite low probability of attendance can mean disadvantaging the students who stayed home or inconveniencing the teachers and students who were present.

The low-income students in whose interest Fariña claims to work – those who theoretically benefit from school being open for the hot meals – already face enough of an achievement gap at school, performing worse academically than their middle- and upper-class counterparts. They don’t need one more reason to fall behind. Students from low-income families also suffer from Summer Slide, a phenomenon in which students experience summertime learning loss due to lack of educationally enriching resources and opportunities.

Last Thursday’s public school attendance numbers not only showed results worse than the January 22 attendance numbers, but also demonstrated that the attendance rates disproportionately affect the outer boroughs. The Bronx and Brooklyn had 37 percent and 44 percent attendance rates, respectively, both below the total New York City average. (Staten Island had the lowest attendance rate at 26 percent).

Source: New York Department of EducationSource: New York Department of Education

At a Bronx school only 15 percent of the students showed up, many leaving before lunch, according to one teacher. And Bedford-Stuyvesant Preparatory High School in Brooklyn recorded just 6 percent attendance while 37 Manhattan schools recorded attendance of over 80 percent.

For Fariña, as the leader of the nation’s largest school system, to close schools due to inclement weather is inevitably a tough choice with many complicating factors – as de Blasio pointed out, it has happened just 11 times in the last 36 years. But when less than half of the city’s students are able to attend school, and boroughs with the highest numbers of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch record some of the lowest attendance rates, it’s clear that simply keeping schools open for students who need the hot meals doesn’t add up.