In New York City’s dog-eat-dog world of applying to competitive public middle and high schools, even a single absence from school can count against a student.

So when top city officials began urging families to keep sick children home from school to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, some parents called on the education department to stop using attendance records in school admissions decisions.

Attempting to calm parents’ concerns about absences, the department suggested in a tweet that the attendance policy may have shifted — only to clarify about five hours later that nothing had changed.

The mixed signals on attendance sowed confusion among parents and elected officials. It also raised questions about how quickly and accurately the country’s largest school system could share vital information at a time when it could help curb the virus. 

“I am concerned about the conflicting information they’re providing to the public about their attendance policy,” said Mark Treyger, chairman of City Council’s education committee. Pressure to keep sick children in school, he added, “could have real-time health impacts.”

Here’s what we know about the confusing guidance, why it matters to parents, and what it means for the education department’s larger response to a growing epidemic.

🔗Why is there confusion about attendance policies?

In short: City Hall and the education department, which is controlled by the mayor, have offered what seemed like conflicting information.

As some parents urged the education department to eliminate attendance as an admissions standard, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday there would be no change, as the coronavirus threat to the general public remains low.

“Right now, how we would address school attendance issues and admissions and all, that’s over the horizon and we’re not there yet,” the mayor said.

Then the education department sent a tweet Tuesday morning that suggested there could be a policy shift.

“In our schools, it’s health and safety first. #Coronavirus-related absences will not impact current applications to middle or high schools,” the department posted. 

Parents immediately began to register their confusion.

For one, there is no reason coronavirus-related absences would have an effect on current applications to middle or high schools. Those applications were due in December, before there was a single confirmed case of the coronavirus in the United States. 

Some parents assumed the education department meant to say that future admissions cycles would not take attendance into account, since that is the only plausible policy change that would affect students who stay home due to coronavirus concerns. That turned out not to be the case.

Some observers swiftly called out the department for the mixed messages.

 

Danielle Filson, an education department spokesperson said: “Our number one focus right now is the safety and health of our students and school communities and we’re working on guidance for schools on how to address absences on attendance records. If a child is sick, as we’ve stated in letters to families, they should stay home from school.”

🔗The dustup has drawn attention to a longstanding issue

The arrival of coronavirus in New York has provided ammunition for parents who had already been advocating for eliminating the use of attendance in admissions decisions for middle and high schools. They have argued that elementary and middle school children don’t often have control over their own attendance, so the policy disadvantages students whose families might not have access to stable housing or transportation, or with inflexible work schedules. 

More than 20% of middle and high schools here use competitive admissions criteria to admit students, which critics say helps cement New York City’s place as one of the most segregated school systems in the country. 

City Councilman Keith Powers said reform was needed even before the arrival of coronavirus. But now that it has the potential to encourage sick children to show up to school, “it just kind of reiterated this ridiculousness of this policy.” Powers recently called on the schools chancellor to at least exempt medical absences from being considered in admissions decisions. 

🔗Why it matters

The episode raises questions about how New York City’s education department plans to share essential information with New Yorkers should coronavirus threats intensify.

The education department has been slow to offer information about contingency plans if health department officials recommend closing schools in response to outbreaks. Such plans could include remote learning, something federal officials have said districts should be prepared to do.

“Consistency and clarity are really needed right now,” Treyger said.