New York’s agonizing decision reflects a divisive debate raging in almost every country over the importance of reopening schools while the outbreak grinds on. That fight has sometimes seen parents, teachers, politicians and epidemiologists stake out conflicting positions and has raised difficult questions about the health threats of returning schoolchildren to classrooms — and the educational and economic risks of keeping them out.

The city’s approach stands in stark contrast to the strategy adopted in much of Western Europe, where keeping schools open has been a political and societal priority, even as governments have imposed strict lockdowns on public life, shutting or imposing restrictions on restaurants, bars, museums and theaters.

Germany, for example, has deemed schools and day care centers “essential services,” allowing them to remain open with precautionary measures like distancing, mask-wearing and open classroom windows.

But New York City, which may close its classrooms before indoor dining is paused and before nonessential office workers are asked to stay home, has adopted a policy typical of many big American cities.