NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City's public school district, the largest in the United States, will halt in-person instruction starting Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced, citing soaring coronavirus infection rates there and across the country.
The mayor's decision, unveiled Wednesday on Twitter, came as the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 neared a world record of a quarter-million lives lost, and as state and local officials nationwide moved to further restrict social gatherings and commercial activity to stem surging cases and hospitalizations heading into winter.
The move doubtless came as a relief to some teachers, many of whom have expressed fear of being placed at increased risk of exposure to the highly contagious respiratory virus.
But it will cause hardship for working parents forced to make new childcare arrangements once more.
"I could lose my job... I am stuck between bills and my son, and it's a hard choice. Really hard," said Felix Franco, 30, a U.S. Postal Service employee who has been on leave recovering from COVID-19 himself since spring and was planning to return to work in two weeks.
Franco, who said he has no one else lined up to care for his 6-year-old son during the school day, is already behind on his monthly car bill and racking up credit card debt.
New York City, the U.S. epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, has seen a late-autumn resurgence of the virus after a summertime lull. Schools have been following a staggered, part-time system of classroom instruction since September, with 1.1 million students dividing their school week between in-person and online learning.
But de Blasio said all instruction would revert to distance learning again on Thursday after the rate at which coronavirus tests in the city were coming back positive rose to a seven-day average of 3%, the threshold for ceasing in-person classes.
"Unfortunately, this means public school buildings will be closed as of tomorrow, Thursday Nov. 19, out (of) an abundance of caution," de Blasio wrote on Twitter. "We must fight back the second wave of COVID-19."
New York City joins other large school districts in cities like Boston and Detroit that have recently canceled in-person learning. Within the last week, the Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas and is the fifth largest in the United States, and Philadelphia's public school system both postponed plans to return to in-person instruction.
In other regions, the positivity rate for COVID-19 tests and increases in hospitalizations have shot up even higher. Nationwide, the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 topped 75,000 on Tuesday, setting a record.
Health experts say greater social mixing and indoor gatherings during the holiday season, combined with colder weather, could accelerate the surge, threatening to overwhelm already strained healthcare systems.
The Midwest has become the new U.S. epicenter of the crisis, reporting almost a half-million cases during the week ending on Monday.
Cuyahoga County, which encompasses Ohio's most populous city, Cleveland, on Wednesday ordered residents to stay at home "to the greatest extent possible" through Dec. 17 in response to "an unprecedented recent surge of severely ill patients requiring hospitalization" and "concerns with diminished local hospital bed capacity."
Government officials in at least 21 states, representing both sides of the U.S. political divide, have issued sweeping new public health mandates this month. These range from stricter limits on social gatherings and non-essential businesses to new requirements for wearing masks in public places.
White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany on Wednesday called the wave of new restrictions an overreach by state and local officials.
"The American people know how to protect their health," she told Fox News in an interview. "We don't lose our freedom in this country. We make responsible health decisions as individuals."
On Tuesday, the pandemic claimed 1,596 lives in the United States, more than on any single day since July 27, contributing to a total of 249,155 confirmed deaths since the pandemic began, according to a Reuters tally of public healthcare data.
"I'm the most concerned I've been since this pandemic started," Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told CNN on Wednesday.
Forty-one U.S. states have reported daily record increases in COVID-19 cases in November, 20 have registered new all-time highs in coronavirus-related deaths from day to day, and 26 have reported new peaks in hospitalizations, according to the Reuters tally.
In Washington, pressure for a fresh COVID-19 relief bill mounted in the U.S. Congress on Wednesday. Senate Democrats also unveiled new legislation to ramp up the national supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare and other frontline workers.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Brendan O'Brien in New York; additional reporting by Anurag Maan, Susan Heavey and Maria Caspani; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Bill Tarrant)
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