New York City's public school system, the nation's largest, called a halt to in-classroom instruction on Wednesday, citing a jump in coronavirus infection rates, as the US death toll from the Covid-19 pandemic surpassed a grim new milestone of 250,000 lives lost.
The decision to shutter schools and revert exclusively to at-home learning, starting on Thursday, came as state and local officials nationwide reimposed restrictions on social and economic life to tamp down a surge in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations heading into winter.
The action by New York schools, announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio via Twitter, 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 bring renewed hardship for working parents forced to make 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 US 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 US 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 switch back to distance learning again because the positive rate on coronavirus tests in the city rose to a seven-day average of 3%, the threshold for ceasing in-person classes.
"We must fight back the second wave of Covid-19," he said.
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.
As of Wednesday, Covid-19 has claimed at least 250,016 lives so far from in the United States, which has documented about 11.5 million infections since the pandemic emerged, according to a Reuters tally of public healthcare data.
More than 1,400 of those victims perished during the past 24 hours.
Meanwhile, nearly 79,000 Covid-19 patients were reported in US hospitals as of Wednesday, the highest number yet for a single day, up from around 75,000 on Tuesday, Reuters' tally showed.
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 US 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."
Government officials in at least 21 states, representing both sides of the US 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."
Public health experts were less sanguine.
"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 US 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 economic relief bill mounted in the US Congress. Senate Democrats also unveiled new legislation to ramp up the national supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare and other frontline workers.