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NYC teachers to city: Adopt our safety plan or don’t reopen

August 20, 2020 Jennifer Peltz Associated Press
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Teachers are ramping up pressure on New York City to reconsider its plan to reopen classrooms next month, with the teachers’ union presenting an extensive list of coronavirus safety demands Wednesday and suggesting it might sue or strike if schools reopen without all the precautions.

While other major U.S. school systems have backed off plans to launch the school year with in-person instruction, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has held firm to a plan to bring as many as 1.1 million students back to schools two or three days a week starting Sept. 10, though families can opt for fully remote instruction. After becoming the nation’s deadliest COVID-19 hotspot this spring, the city has had relatively low numbers of deaths, hospitalizations and new cases this summer.

“We understand that New York City needs to try to open its schools, but at the same time, we have to do everything in our power that we do not start the spread of this virus once again,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said at a news conference.

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New York Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke to reporters after visiting New Bridges Elementary School on Wednesday. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

Mulgrew said the union is “prepared to go to court and/or go on strike if we need to,” in the event schools open Sept. 10 without carrying out the union’s safety proposals.

Teachers and other public employees are prohibited from striking in New York state, and penalties for doing so can include fines for unions. But “we’ll do it if we have to,” Mulgrew said.

De Blasio, visiting a Brooklyn elementary school later Tuesday, said the city would continue to keep trying to work with the union and to get schools ready to open.

“We care more about kids and parents than these games,” he said.

The city Education Department said the union was “fear-mongering” and defended the city’s preparations as “comprehensive and rigorous.”

“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,” department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot said in a statement.

The nation’s largest public school system had its last day of in-class instruction March 13. All schools statewide were closed by March 18.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke to reporters after visiting New Bridges Elementary School on Wednesday. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

De Blasio, a Democrat, has said that resuming in-person learning is both an educational and an economic imperative, as parents need to get back to work. But he has faced increasing pressure from teachers, principals and some parents.

“I, like everybody else, want my children back in a school building … but I also want everyone to be safe, including the people who are educating my children,” Gloria Corsino, who has two children with special needs, said at the teachers’ union news conference.

The city’s plan entails mask-wearing, staggered schedules to reduce the number of students in rooms and other social distancing steps. The city says it’s supplying every school building with a nurse and a 30-day stockpile of protective gear, and all staffers are being asked to get tested shortly before school starts.

Saying the city’s preparations are inadequate, the United Federation of Teachers said Wednesday that it’s dispatching 100 union staffers to check school ventilation systems, desk spacing and other details. And the union laid out standards it said should be met before any school opens — including ensuring that all students and staffers who plan to be there have either tested negative for the virus in the prior 10 days or tested positive for the antibodies that show evidence of a recent infection and may confer immunity, at least for a time.

Even with some students opting for remote learning, the union estimates hundreds of thousands of students and staffers would need testing, something Mulgrew acknowledged might not be possible by Sept. 10.

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