NEW YORK (WABC) -- Responding to criticism from the head of the teachers union and many parents, Mayor Bill de Blasio defended his decision to keep New York City public schools open Thursday despite the snowstorm.The city's Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina also stirred up controversy by calling it 'a beautiful day'.
The Department of Education says Thursday's public school attendance was 44.65%. It had been about 47% during the previous snowstorm Jan. 22nd.
De Blasio and Farina decided to keep the schools open despite a travel advisory in effect throughout the city.
But all field trips, after-school activities and PSAL events were canceled.
The decision was widely met with criticism, with many taking to social media to express their outrage. The United Federation of Teachers condemned the decision in a statement from President Michael Mulgrew.
"I understand the desire to keep schools open," he said. "The only thing that trumps that is safety. Having students, parents and staff traveling in these conditions was unwarranted. It was a mistake to open schools today."
Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis also issued a statement critical of the decision.
"The City of New York got it wrong today," she said. "The decision by Chancellor Farina to keep all public schools open was misguided. The visibility and weather conditions are very poor and the safety of New York's students should be paramount when making a decision on school closures. Keeping schools open and expecting children to travel through heavy snow, sleet and ice at the same time the City is urging residents to stay off the road is nonsensical. Additionally, when making future decisions on school closures, the City should take into account the plight of the outer boroughs that have less transit options and many secondary and tertiary roads that take much longer to be plowed during a heavy snowfall as today's."
De Blasio defended the decision at a late-morning news conference.
"So many families depend on their schools as a place for their kids to be during the day, a safe place where they are not only are taught, they get nutrition and they are safe from the elements," he said. "So many families have to go to work, the members of these families have to go to work, they do not have a choice, and they need a safe option for their kids. So as long as we know our kids can get to school safely, and we know we can operate our schools effectively, we make that decision...I want to emphasize it is a rare act, in fact...since 1978 I think our figures are, about 11 times schools have been closed in that time frame. So it is a rarity, and it's something we do not do lightly."
Farina was also on the defensive, saying "Damned if you do, damned if you don't."
Farina said the decision is ultimately up to parents, but she has to keep students' best interest in mind.
"If people can go to work, then kids can to school," she said. "Many of our kids don't get a hot lunch and, in many cases breakfast, unless they go to school. So it's still a parent's decision whether they send their kids to school or not. My decision is where the kids are safest and the most taken care of, and the answer to that is in schools."
"If we started taking snow days every time it was likely, we'd already be regressing at least five days worth. We know, particularly in the younger grades, that for every day children are not in school, they regress two days worth of education.
Farina called herself the snow chancellor, with just five weeks under her belt and a third snow emergency.
She said it was a third tough call whether to keep more than a million kids home from school, but she drew
sharp criticism for her comments on the conditions outside.
"It has totally stopped snowing," she said. "It is absolutely a beautiful day out there right now."
To close or not to close was the big topic of conversation at a community meeting on Staten Island, where Farina and the mayor angered parents just a week ago with the decision to keep school open even as the de Blasio administration urged New Yorkers to stay off the streets.
Brooklyn parent Shamona Kirkland said it's all a matter of common sense.
"It is a catch 22," she said. "We're working parents, of course, because we do consider the fact that we don't have anywhere for our children to go for the day. But I'd rather my child get to school safely."
Families with busing questions are advised to contact the Office of Pupil Transportation at 718-392-8855.
Parents, as always, should exercise their own judgment with regard to their children. Safety is a top priority for the Department.