With the first day of school drawing closer, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew Aug. 19 warned that if schools opened without proper safety protocols, it would be “one of the greatest debacles in the history of our city” and threatened to strike if any opened unsafely.
He called on Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who have announced that the city’s 1,800 public-schools will adopt a blended-learning model starting Sept. 10, to adopt the union's comprehensive three-part safety plan. The proposal would require each school to be supplied with masks, thermometers and other sanitary and personal protective equipment, on-site school nurses, and for protocols for student dismissals and visitors to be established before in-person instruction can begin.
The Council of Schools Supervisors and Administrators has urged the Mayor to delay in-person learning until late next month because of safety concerns. Schools across the country have reopened then immediately closed because of positive cases.
To Court and Beyond
“If we feel that a school is not safe, we are prepared to go to court and to take a job action, and if a court deems that we are breaking the Taylor Law, so be it,” Mr. Mulgrew said during the press conference.
Public-sector employees under the 1967 state law would lose two days pay for every day they were on strike, while union leaders could potentially face jail time. Unions also face the loss of dues-checkoff rights, which was a crippling penalty for Transport Workers Union Local 100 following its 1980 and 2005 transit strikes and may be a prime reason no other municipal union has struck during the past 40 years. The last UFT walkout was in 1975.
But the risk posed by the potential of a new outbreak of COVID cases if schools opened prematurely appeared to be greater to Mr. Mulgrew than facing such punishments.
“We have promised the parents and Teachers of New York City that we would stand and fight if we felt a school was unsafe, and that is a promise we are going to keep,” he said. “The minute we feel that the Mayor is trying to force people into a situation that is unsafe, we go to court, we go to job action.”
Push Contact Tracing
Beyond making sure schools have PPE, hand soap and adequate ventilation, the union’s plan also calls for robust contact tracing in the event there is a positive case in a school, and requires all students and staff to take an antibody test or a COVID test within 10 days before a school opening. It also called for monthly intermittent testing in each school building.
“PPE is not the first line, ever. You want to make sure people don’t have the disease first,” said Dr. Jacqueline Moline, the Vice President of Occupational Medicine, Epidemiology and Prevention at Northwell Health.
Dr. Mark Jarett, Northwell’s Senior Vice President and Chief Quality Officer, added that the protocols allow parents to feel comfortable sending their children to school, and would have an impact “beyond the four walls of the schools.”
“It is not just whether children will catch it, it’s the fact that they’re going to bring it home,” he said. “And when they bring it home, they could bring it to their parents, and they could bring it to their elderly grandparents and that results in, quite frankly, catastrophic illnesses.”
A Daunting Task
It’s a tall order, particularly because it would be difficult to obtain enough COVID tests for hundreds of thousands of staff members and the 700,000 students who have opted in to blended-learning.
Mr. Mulgrew conceded that it would take a “miracle” for every part of the plan to fall into place before Sept. 10, and suggested that school buildings could open individually, instead of simultaneously, once they were deemed safe. Even if schools acquired personal protective equipment, hired nurses and enough COVID testing was available for intermittent testing of student and staff, they would not likely be able to begin in-person instruction until late September or early October, the union leader stated.
“We don’t believe it is possible for schools to open on Sept. 10. Even without the testing piece, it is our judgment, as well as the Principals union's, that if you open schools on Sept. 10, it might be one of the biggest debacles in the history of the city,” he said.
The DOE has said it would hire school nurses and close classrooms where there was a positive COVID case. Mr. de Blasio also promised that the testing of school employees would be “prioritized” at 34 city-run testing locations.
DOE spokeswoman Miranda Barbot stated that the UFT was “fear-mongering.”
“We have the most comprehensive and rigorous plan in the country, coupled with record-low infection rates,” she said. “When we see a full plan that is rooted in data and science, we’ll review it—until then, it seems like they just don’t want to say the quiet part out loud: they don’t want to open schools at all for students and families.”
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