Teachers' Union Again Threatens to Delay NYC School Reopening Over Testing Issues

The approaching flu season will only make COVID more challenging, officials say; Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the state is looking into possibly making the flu shot mandatory for schools

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What to Know

  • Less than two weeks before classes begin in New York City, 16 NYC teachers have tested positive for COVID-19; One case involves a teacher at P.S.1 in Sunset Park and Middle School 88 in Park Slope
  • In-person learning for all New York City public schools is scheduled to resume Sept. 21; deaths of teachers in three other states since school started is generating a new wave of concerns
  • New York's COVID-19 rate of infection has been below 1 percent for 34 straight days, which contributed to Gov. Cuomo's decisions to reopen schools, gyms, museums and even indoor dining in the five boroughs

With less than two weeks before students in the nation's largest school district return to in-person learning, parents are getting a first look at the new protocols intended to keep kids and staff safe. Sixteen teachers have tested positive for COVID-19, which is sure to only amplify concerns.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew gave that number during a video conference call, saying it's a very low percentage of teachers considering there were about 15,000 tested (meaning that just a tenth of a percent of teachers had positive tests). The 16 teachers work at 16 different buildings throughout the city.

However, he did express concern given that many of the tests were administered on Sept. 2, and they're just now getting the results. Mulgrew said that the city is not holding up its end of the bargain when it came to rapid results, and said that custodial staffs also had not yet gotten all the cleaning materials they need.

Mulgrew said those two hurdles must be addressed, or else the Sept. 21 opening for schools could be at risk.

"If the city can't live up to its agreement, we are going to say you can't open," Mulgrew said.

In response, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city's "public hospital system has worked to make testing as fast and convenient for school-based staff across the city and we are seeing turnaround times within 48 hours for over 95% of tests. Testing is one component of our extensive safety protocols — including masks, PPE, ample cleaning supplies, and social distancing — and we'll continue to fire way on all cylinders to ensure a safe reopening for our staff."

Asked about the total number of staff in schools who have tested positive for COVID-19 since teachers returned to buildings this week, the mayor didn't have a concrete answer Thursday. He said the full reporting would begin when students report for in-person learning in 11 days -- but he also said he expected that "of course" there would be clusters that emerge when school starts.

"Of course there will be days where you find a case in a classroom and the classroom has to be shut down — even a school shut down. But it's a temporary reality," de Blasio said.

It's the mitigation efforts -- like mask-wearing, testing, contact tracing and other measures -- that the city has layered within its multi-faceted back-to-school plan that will be key to ensuring a single case doesn't explode into hundreds, he said.

The approaching flu season will compound the COVID challenge, the mayor and other officials say. With vaccination levels falling off amid the pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday his team is looking into possibly making the flu shot mandatory for public school students, while reminding the Department of Education that transparency is mandatory.

"The school districts and schools have to report. We did that by executive order, so we will have that information," Cuomo said.

Students are returning to school, both in person and online, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the UFT says it's working with city health and education officials to make sure those who test positive follow the proper quarantine and contact tracing guidelines.

“Until we have a vaccine in place, the most effective tactics against the spread of the coronavirus have been masks and social distancing, along with testing and contract tracing. All of these are part of the city’s safety plan," the teachers union said in a statement. "The plan anticipates that testing will sometimes show that asymptomatic individuals in schools have contracted the virus. The isolation and quarantine of such individuals, followed by aggressive contact tracing, are also key elements of the safety plan."

The city's Department of Education said there had been an investigation into one of the first confirmed COVID cases among teachers this fall, with the person being isolated and other staff members identified as close contacts being required to quarantine.

"As soon as the case was confirmed, we notified staff, in accordance with our protocol. Staff have had access to and known about priority testing since September 1," said the DOE spokesperson.

So far, the city has only confirmed that two employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, and that they work in Brooklyn at P.S.1 in Sunset Park and Middle School 88 in Park Slope, Department of Education officials said.

"School staff have access to free, expedited testing and we’ve encouraged all staff to get tested before they return to buildings while we continue to navigate the realities of a pandemic," DOE spokesperson Miranda Barbot said in a statement.

New York City says more than two-thousand classrooms will be off-limits unless repairs are made in time. That's four percent of the city’s school buildings. All this as teachers and staff went back to campus today to start getting ready. Andrew Siff reports.

In-person learning for all New York City public schools is scheduled to resume Sept. 21 after UFT and Mayor de Blasio agreed to postpone the start of the new year to give teachers more time to plan.

Earlier this week, the city announced that 10 school buildings failed safety inspection because the ventilation doesn't meet COVID safety guidelines. As of Thursday, officials say four of those buildings have gotten the needed repairs.

Ventilation is just part of several moving pieces required to reopen schools while keeping the state's infection rate down. It is currently below 1 percent for the 34th straight day, which contributed to Cuomo's recent decisions to reopen schools, gyms, museums, casinos and even indoor dining in the five boroughs.

When schools begin, de Blasio says buses will be available for about 100,000 students, acknowledging that it's a much lower number than previous school years due to hybrid learning.

Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region

Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here


Masks and social distancing requirements apply on buses for everyone, the mayor said. He added that families started to be notified on their children's bus routes on Wednesday and everyone should be notified by the end of the week.

Addressing concerns from teachers who say they showed up at school this week and there was no 30-day supply of protective equipment provided like school officials pledged, de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Caranza said a handful of schools were missed due to the realities of deliveries and facilities.

"Once the mistake was realized, they're being resupplied today with the PPE, it's very easy with the amount of PPE we have on hand to get a school supplied immediately," the mayor told reporters.

School reopenings across the state have already contributed to clusters of new COVID-19 cases, especially on college campuses -- but it is too early to tell if K-12 reopenings will cause an impact on the state's record-low infection rate.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said the clusters emerging on college campuses will inevitably appear -- to at least some degree -- at the K-12 level. He wants to ensure New Yorkers are empowered with the facts and can assess the effectiveness of any individual school plan on an ongoing and rolling basis.

"If the school reopening plans don't work, you'll see that. You'll see it in the numbers," Cuomo said Thursday. "If there's a problem, we will see the problem and we will respond. That is where we are in life now. That's the nature of the situation we are in. We don't know what's going to happen because we don't know what's going to happen."

Going forward, every New York district will submit COVID reports to the state daily -- and the state will issue COVID "report cards" for every school in the state, Cuomo said Tuesday. The accounting will include positive cases of students and staff and daily testing data, among other metrics. And if any school or college campus reaches 100 COVID cases, it will have to move to all-remote immediately.

Some are planning to move certain cohorts to all-remote for a number of days if a student or staff member tests positive. That happened in New Jersey's Little Silver school district, when a student tested positive, officials confirmed Thursday.

Other school reopenings have not gone smoothly. New Milford High School in Fairfield County had to delay in-person learning after finding out on social media about a positive case. A similar situation occurred in Westchester County, where the superintendent of Pelham schools said students partying in the woods have directly led to a delay as well.

Most major school districts across the U.S. are opting to start all-remote anyway, including many in New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy toured schools gearing up for a hybrid model that will begin later in the school year. Recent upticks in infection rates are already generating new cause for alarm. Teachers in at least three states have died after bouts with the coronavirus since the dawn of the new school year.

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