Students, Teachers at Risk of New COVID Surge as NYC Adopts Lax Approach to Classroom Safety

Issue 266

“We must fight to keep us safe,” write two rank-and-file educators who say the teacher’s union leadership is too cozy with Mayor de Blasio.

Will Johnson & Amanda Vender Sep 7, 2021

New York City’s Mayor and Schools Chancellor are sending public school children back to classes on September 13 as COVID-19 surges across the city and state, and while children under the age of 12 remain ineligible for vaccination. Students will return to overcrowded school buildings without adequate ventilation to handle the airborne disease. They are heading back to schools that will conduct substantially less COVID testing than during the last school year. The city plans to test only 10% of unvaccinated students and staff twice per month, and continues to allow students and families to opt out of this testing. 

To reiterate, the city is scaling back its mitigation measures even as the city’s Covid-19 positivity and hospitalization rates are substantially higher than they were last fall. According to New York’s Department of Health, the city’s positivity rate, which fell to less than 1 percent in September 2020, was at 2.5 percent as of August 29 of this year. Also as of August 29, 8 of the city’s 9 largest hospitals were already at 74-90% capacity. Community spread is more prevalent in the city than it’s been for over a year, and the city plans to send students into thousands of unsafe classrooms while simultaneously reducing its testing and tracing programs.  

Nearly as alarming as the city’s reopening plan is the willingness of local officials to mislead and misinform the public about the safety of the city’s schools. Recent news reports have noted that the city has begun altering its own safety standards so that it can certify classrooms as safe for occupancy. Writing for Gothamist, Caroline Lewis reported that the Department of Education has certified more than 4,000 classrooms as having “operational ventilation” even though their only forms of ventilation are open windows. She went on to note that “as recently as July 3rd, the DOE called for ‘at least two’ modes of ventilation for a classroom to be operable.” DOE leaders seem to have decided that if the schools can’t be made safe according to CDC or even DOE standards, they’ll simply revise their standards and hope nobody notices.  

Listen to our conversation with co-author Amanda Vender on WBAI.

Offering the public confusing, misleading, or contradictory standards has been common practice for the Mayor’s office and the Department of Education since the pandemic began. While the city claims, for example, that classrooms will follow CDC social distancing guidelines of at least 3 feet between students, administrators report that the DOE has sent principals separate guidelines that would make violating these guidelines commonplace. One administrator, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from DOE management, reported that the DOE calculated that classrooms which in a normal year hold 25 students were deemed safe for up to 43 students. At a time when elected officials seem mystified about why vaccine-hesitant New Yorkers don’t trust them, the city’s refusal to be honest and transparent about school safety is inexcusable.

Unfortunately, rather than challenge an unpopular lame-duck Mayor and a DOE leadership that few parents trust, President Michael Mulgrew of the United Federation of Teachers (the union representing most city teachers and school workers) has lined up behind them every step of the way. Mulgrew’s response to the city’s safety plan was simply to forward it to UFT members in an email that raised no concerns whatsoever about the city’s plans to reduce testing capacity and allow principals to squeeze students into classrooms far more crowded than the CDC recommends. Indeed, Mulgrew’s plan of action is to “train the Covid-19 building response team in every school” so that these teams can ensure that the city’s woefully inadequate safety protocols are followed. The failure of Mulgrew and UFT’s Unity leadership to organize a campaign for safe schools — like the ones recently waged by teacher unions in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago — may have disastrous consequences.

Communities across the country, where schools have already reopened, offer a glimpse of what is coming in New York. COVID-19 is now a disease of the unvaccinated. Hospital beds are filling with younger and healthier people than before. Children’s Hospital New Orleans is full with COVID-19 patients. In Mississippi, more than 20,000 students were quarantined during the first week of school in August, with more than 20 percent of those reportedly being infected by the coronavirus.

Rather than challenge an unpopular lame-duck Mayor and a DOE leadership that few parents trust, UFT President Michael Mulgrew has lined up behind them every step of the way. 

Fortunately, NYC has mandated the vaccine for school staff. While this will provide substantial protection for school workers, vaccinated people are still able to carry and transmit the virus to the unvaccinated and vulnerable. A vaccine mandate thus offers little security for students too young to be vaccinated, as well as to vaccinated students and school workers who live with young children or people who are immunocompromised or otherwise particularly vulnerable to the virus. This is part of why the city’s plan to eliminate testing for the vaccinated is so dangerous. 

It is also unclear why the vaccine mandate does not apply to students for whom the vaccine has full approval: those over the age of 16. Students are mandated to get the chickenpox vaccine to enter schools, along with a host of other vaccines, yet will not be required to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, even as community spread is increasing.

The FDA is facing growing pressure, including from parents, the American Academy of Pediatrics and members of Congress, to approve the COVID vaccines for children under 12. Until that approval happens, however, indoor school in much of the City’s poorly ventilated and crowded schools will be unsafe.

Until the vaccine is available for children under 12, a remote learning option must be provided for families who don’t want to send their children to school in-person. To ensure that students can learn remotely, the city must provide free technology and internet access, along with support and tech training to families, so that we are all prepared for school quarantines and shut-downs.

To ensure that schools are safe, the city must adhere to ventilation standards in accordance with CDC recommendations. Schools should be encouraged to use both outdoor and indoor space creatively in ways that maximize student and worker safety. At an absolute minimum, all unvaccinated students should be tested weekly, along with a random sample of the vaccinated.

To support the city’s vaccination efforts, the DOE should make vaccines widely available to all eligible students, as well as to family and community members. Beyond that, to counter the widespread misinformation about vaccines, the DOE should develop accessible curricula for students and families about COVID and vaccines, much like the HIV/AIDS curriculum which already exists. 

Over the past 18 months, we have seen repeatedly that elected and appointed officials cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of this city or its public schools. This is why the failure of Mike Mulgrew and the UFT’s Unity leadership to stand up for the health and safety of UFT members and our students has been so disheartening.  

Last summer, as thousands of New Yorkers protested the brutal violence of police and the racist order they maintain, we returned again and again to a simple refrain: we keep us safe. As members of the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), we know that the only way to create the safe, healthy schools our city deserves is to fight for them. We cannot wait for the leaders of the UFT or the DOE to protect us. We must organize and prepare to fight for our safety, and the safety of our students. We must fight to keep us safe. 

The authors are teacher members of the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), the social justice caucus of the UFT.

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