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NYC School Plan Puts Teachers at Risk

The UFT wants a plan that increases testing and tracing and closes schools when there is a positive case

Brian Young's picture
Aug 06, 2020

New York City is set to open schools in just a few weeks with some in-person classes. The plan, which was submitted to the Governor’s office for approval, would include a mix of in-person teaching and remote learning. However, the plan has teachers on edge about how the school would respond to  a positive case of COVID-19.

According to NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s plan, a single case of COVID-19 would mean that the class must quarantine for 14 days and two non-related cases would require the entire school to close for two weeks. However, teachers, many of whom are already concerned about reopening schools for in-person learning in the fall, are worried that waiting to close the school until there is a second positive test could mean that they have waited too long and allowed other students and staff to become infected. In an email from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) to their members, the unions called on New York City to amend the plan to close after a single positive case.

“This is no time to take risks,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said in a prepared release. “If the state allows school buildings to reopen, districts must be prepared to close them in the event of a positive case."

UFT President Michael Mulgrew also said that the Mayor’s plan “lacks specifics” on what the school is supposed to do to deal with positive cases. In addition to closing schools for a positive test, the UFT has a long list of demands that should be met before a school can reopen. They include:

  • Voluntary testing for all students and school-based staff returning for in-person instruction
  • A rolling testing regimen in every school community for adults and student volunteers to identify those infected with the virus but asymptomatic
  • The results of these tests should be available within 24 hours
  • A dedicated group of contact tracers to investigate who else has been exposed when an adult or a student in a school contracts the virus
  • A school nurse in every school building
  • Evidence that the protections and procedures outlined in the plan have been implemented, including the testing and upgrading of ventilation systems, and the necessary staff and supplies to deep clean the buildings every night

Teachers' unions are in a tough spot when it comes to reopening schools. Districts don’t need the union's approval for their reopening plan, although many districts are consulting with their union leaders before submitting any plans. This is because teachers do have some leverage. Although strikes may be illegal for teachers in New York, when teachers announced in March that they wouldn’t put their lives on the line during the COVID-19 outbreak, schools closed immediately, so they have power when they work together. With over 50,000 signatures on the UFT’s petition to Mayor DeBlasio laying out the union’s plan for reopening, the Mayor seems like he will be forced to meet at least some of the teacher's demands.

New York City is the only one of the “Big” school districts that will attempt to reopen with at least some in-person classes. This week, Chicago made the decision after the teachers union announced they would strike if the district tried to reopen with in-person teaching. Will the same happen in New York? We may know in the coming weeks.

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