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Coronavirus closes nation's largest school system, leaving parents 'terrified of the unknown'

"For many families, this isn't just an inconvenience — this is their livelihood," one parent said.

For at least the next five weeks, public schools in New York City, the country's largest school system, are closed as part of the herculean effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

But the decision to close schools, announced Sunday evening by Mayor Bill de Blasio, has caught parents of the 1.1 million public school students flat-footed: City and state officials had suggested last week that there was no immediate plan to close schools because so many children rely on meals and other social services they provide.

With schools closed beginning Monday, some parents are upset that they weren't given more time to prepare, while others are unsure how they'll take care of their children or provide the tools to complete lesson plans from home after de Blasio warned that classrooms could remain shuttered for the entire academic year.

"I have to be honest, we are dealing with a lot of unknowns and a lot of challenges," the mayor said.

As the coronavirus exposes existing economic disparities among families, some of whom must grapple with a new set of worries, a common thread unites many parents: What do we do now?

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Three children, now all at home

Grisel Cardona, 30, of the South Bronx is normally awake at 5 a.m. to get her oldest son, Christopher, 9, dressed and ready to board his school bus.

But with the unexpected news that schools are closed, Cardona spent the morning trying to soothe Christopher and her two other children, Rose, 7, and Lord Mason, 2. She counts on the schools to help them with their individualized education plans related to either autism or speech-related needs.

"I'm very upset," said Cardona, a single mother who had been working in the retail industry but now relies on government assistance. "After hearing on Sunday night that they were closing schools, I'm thinking, 'Are you serious right now?' They could have prevented all of this if they came up with a plan weeks ago. Some people have to go to work the next day and are thinking, 'What are we going to do with our kids?'"

Cardona has been caring for her youngest son at home because he is nonverbal and she won't leave him with someone else. She had counted on her other children getting their meals at school and will continue to do so after Gov. Andrew Cuomo said New York City schools must continue to make the meals program available to children.

All city schools will continue to supply meals for students to grab and take home. That's at least one consolation for Cardona.

But she worries about other parents in her school district, where 86 percent of students are classified as "economically disadvantaged."

"There are children with multiple disabilities," she said. "Half of them can't do remote learning. What happens to my children? I worry about all of us."

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A household 'torn'

Rasheedah Harris and her husband, Khnemu, have a daughter in public school. Harris, a former administrative assistant at a corporate law firm, said she's fortunate because she can stay home with Afiya, 9.

IMAGE: Afiya Harris
Afiya Harris, 9, of the Bronx, does her homework on a laptop while sitting on the stairs.Rashidah Harris

In calling for the closing of New York City schools, Cuomo pledged that all parents would be provided access to child care as needed — particularly health care workers and first responders who are on the front lines of the outbreak.

De Blasio asked Monday that until such citywide plans are finalized, "if you have a family member, a friend or a neighbor who is a health care worker, transit worker or first responder, step up and offer to help them with child care."

That's something Harris said she wants to do. But her husband remains nervous about opening their Bronx home to outsiders who may unwittingly spread the virus to them.

"My husband and I are having deep discussions about it," Harris said. "I will take in anyone. My husband does not agree. This is where we're torn in this household."

While she hopes an economic downturn won't affect her husband's job in elevator construction and maintenance, she believes she has "the luxury" of taking in other children whose parents can't watch them.

"I think I will win this fight," Harris said. "I'm very passionate about helping our fellow parents."

A routine upended

Chad MacDonald and his wife, Robin, also can work from home, as a freelance writer and a post-production supervisor in the entertainment industry, respectively.

IMAGE: Chad, Liam and Robin MacDonald
Chad and Robin MacDonald of Manhattan with their son Liam, 7.Chad MacDonald

The Manhattan couple have seen how the local public school has helped to nurture their son, Liam, 7, who earlier struggled with speech issues and is on the autism spectrum.

MacDonald said he's relieved that Liam no longer requires speech therapy like before, but he knows that if the coronavirus had closed schools when Liam was struggling, it "would have set him back for life."

Now, it's important that his son adjusts to a regular routine: bagels in the morning, some TV time, playing with Legos and reading a book. Liam still craves action and activity, MacDonald said, and he is anticipating what might happen without school and seeing his friends regularly.

"This is a big change for him," MacDonald said. "We're trying not to make this a traumatic time for him."

Banding together as parents

As the president of a parent association council for her local district in southern Brooklyn, Sabina Singer has been getting contacted hourly by other parents worried about the school closings.

"Most parents are not English speakers, or English is certainly not their first language," said Singer, who has children 8 and 9. "How will they assist their children with online learning? No, not every family has a computer or internet, and given that community centers like libraries are closed, they will be cut off from the educational system."

Singer said she's doing the best she can to help parents. She's seen her neighbors offering to babysit for parents who must work and families suggesting virtual play dates to keep their children entertained.

But with Monday being only Day One of schools' closing, the uncertainty is unnerving, she said, and she could sense it in every parent she spoke with.

If parents "have to work so they can just pay for necessities, where will they find the money for a babysitter?" she asked. "Many of our families are blue-collar workers, working for businesses that they can't simply work from home for, and several families had been let go because business can't sustain itself."

She said she hopes parents will continue to support one another, but "we are all terrified of the unknown and uncertainty."

"For many families, this isn't just an inconvenience," Singer said. "This is their livelihood."