Union: Opening NYC Schools Sept. 10 May Be ‘One of Biggest Debacles in History,' Threatens Strike

A growing number of major public school districts, from Chicago to Houston and Los Angeles, are opting to start the school year virtually amid ongoing safety concerns

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What to Know

  • More NYC principals are joining the call to delay in-person learning in the five boroughs; 41 more sent the mayor and chancellor a letter Monday. The union says no city public school should reopen under the current plan
  • In a statement, the Department of Education said it was "doing tremendous work" to return to in-person learning safely in September; meanwhile, a growing number of U.S. schools are now opting to start fully remote
  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo said New York districts should take into account the recent spikes in some schools and universities that have already reopened and re-closed; he says the Notre Dame outbreak would be worse in K-12

No New York City public school should open for in-person learning unless it meets a bevy of safety criteria, including requiring "every single person, adult and child" who enters one of the nearly 1,800 facilities to be tested for COVID or the antibodies, the president of the city's teachers' union said Wednesday.

Mike Mulgrew, head of the United Federation of Teachers, released a school safety checklist Wednesday outlining clear standards the union says are needed to safely reopen schools (and keep them open going forward). He says no school should open unless it meets all the criteria in that report, which covers a range of topics from PPE to ventilation, cleaning and cafeteria protocol -- and he went so far as to threaten court action or a teachers' strike if that doesn't happen.

"It is our judgment at this point that if you open schools September 10, it will be one of the biggest debacles in history," Mulgrew tweeted. "The minute we feel the mayor is trying to force people into a situation that is unsafe, we go to court; we go to job actions."

The last New York City teachers' strike was in 1975, according to the union. If teachers were to take that action they'd be breaking a law known as “Taylor Law,” which would fine and even jail teachers for the action. To that concern, Mulgrew tweeted, "If a court determines we are breaking the Taylor Law, so be it."

Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose daily briefing preceded the UFT announcement Wednesday, later accused the union of playing games and moving the goalposts on the fly. He claimed the union had never asked for mandatory testing before now and reiterated that a strike would be illegal. For the last month, the mayor has consistently said the city will prioritize student and staff safety above all else, rolling out new requirements like certified nurses in each school along with strict COVID protocol mandates and comparatively low thresholds for re-closure.

"They can play games all they want. It is not legal. It's not responsible for a leader of any union to talk about doing something illegal," de Blasio said. "We care more about kids and parents than these games ... I expect every employee of the City of New York to remember who they work for: the families of the kids of New York City."

The city's teacher's union, though, has questioned at every turn whether it's enough, and Mulgrew said "short-sighted political agendas" were fueling the call to return students and teachers to classrooms. The union said the plan "lacks specifics" and some measures may not be attainable at the individual school level. The issue of testing, for example, is of key concern. The city has no plans to require teachers, students or other staff to get tested for COVID, though says it strongly encourages it. COVID testing is universally open in New York, and the union wants stricter protocol as it relates to schools on that front. Supplies and procedures are two other prime concerns.

"We have to make sure that if there is a problem at a school, if there's someone with symptoms, that the procedures are in place. That there is a nurse there, we have an isolation room," Mulgrew said. "That everyone understands their role, that each school will now have a COVID building response team, that the school will act as a team."

Additionally, the UFT said it would be dispatching 100 union staffers to check school ventilation systems, desk spacing and other details at school buildings.

A growing number of major school districts across the country — from Chicago to Los Angeles to Houston and now Newark, New Jersey — are opting to start the school year completely virtual amid ongoing safety concerns. Universities like Manhattan's School of Visual Arts abruptly scrapped plans to start in person next month, deferring that step until the spring semester — at least for now.

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


New York City is aiming for a hybrid reopening this fall, with most of the 1.1 million students spending two or three days a week in physical classrooms and learning remotely the rest of the time. About a quarter of families have opted to start fully remote, though they'll have the ability to opt back in for in-person quarterly. Fifteen percent of teachers have indicated they'll only instruct remotely.

Given those numbers, the teachers' union says it expects up to 750,000 students and staff would need to be tested before school starts, under its guidelines.

"Working with medical experts, we have created a set of health and safety standards we will apply to every building," Mulgrew said Wednesday. "Any school that fails to meet these guidelines should be off-limits to children, parents and teachers until the problems are corrected.”

City health officials say conducting the widely used PCR diagnostic tests on that many people before Sept. 10 be hampered by lab capacity issues -- a concern that will only mount as labs become flooded with flu season tests later this year. They also aren't sure the rapid testing available is a viable solution for students.

Meanwhile, more New York City principals are asking for a delayed start to in-person learning this fall, adding momentum to growing calls in the five boroughs to stall the physical return to class over ongoing safety concerns nationwide.

NBC New York's Tracie Strahan reports.

Principals at 41 schools in Manhattan's District 6, one of nearly three dozen school zones across the city, sent a letter to de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza Tuesday officially asking for some sort of delay.

In a statement responding to the latest push, the city's Department of Education said, "Educators and school leaders are doing tremendous work to make the most important school year in history safe and healthy for children, and we know they need information and resources to make reopening possible."

"With a citywide infection rate of 1 percent, New York City is the safest major city in the country and we're sharing guidance on instruction and safety on a frequent basis to continue planning for a September reopening," the statement continued.

The city Education Department blasted the union's claims as "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.

Notably, the DOE statement was devoid of a specific date to start the 2020-21 school year. Previously, de Blasio has said the goal was to reopen schools for in-person as well as remote learning as scheduled, on Sept. 10. It wasn't immediately clear if the DOE statement reflected a willingness to push that back.

Officials have aggressively been working to shore up school safety ahead of the reopenings of New York City's nearly 1,800 school buildings. De Blasio added another tool for city principals on Tuesday -- a direct line to request immediate PPE supplies before and during the school year.

New York City parents could get fall school schedules as soon as Monday -- meaning students will find out what days of the week they will be in school for in-person instruction and what days they will be learning remotely. The DOE announced last week that it approved hybrid learning schedules for roughly 1,200 schools.

"This is about being ready. It’s about moving past fear to resiliency. Getting ready to have a school year where our kids get served in a safe way and putting in place the precautions needed," de Blasio said. "This is about anything a school could need, whether it be hand sanitizer, wipes or soap, you name it. Face shields, surgical masks – whatever our educators need, whatever our staff needs, whatever our kids need, we are going to make sure it’s there."

The hotline for principals will be up and running at some point this week. Parents of children attending the city's public schools are also expected to receive their kids' blended learning schedules starting this week.

The Department of Education of Newark, New Jersey's largest city, announced that schools will remain remote for instruction for staff and students until the end of the first marking period, around mid-November, when the NBOE Reopening Task Force will once again reassess.

Mulgrew says he and others want a more comprehensive, specific plan than the one the city has provided -- and that the city owes New Yorkers that much.

More than 100 union investigators — who have already started reviewing more than 1,400 school buildings — will check every school for health and safety measures that include the presence of a school nurse, a 6-foot separation between student desks, sufficient masks and other protective equipment, working ventilation systems to reduce the concentration of air-borne virus particles, and an isolation/quarantine room for students who develop symptoms of infection.

"These are not the mayor's schools, they're not my schools, they're the community's schools," Mulgrew said Wednesday. “While our members want to be back in their classrooms, the safety of our students, their families and our staff comes first."

Parents and educators across the entire state have lingering questions. How will testing work? What are the requirements? How will I know if my kids' school has to be shut down? What about testing and tracing for teachers?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo says that unless these key stakeholders are comfortable with the answers to those questions and more, they may resist a return to in-person learning. If parents don't send their children, schools won't have children to teach, Cuomo says. If teachers don't show up to class, kids won't have educators.

The governor has required each of the state's 700-plus school districts to hold a number of mandatory information sessions with parents and at least one focused solely for teachers by the end of this week.

Earlier this month, Cuomo cleared all New York's 700-plus school districts to reopen for in-person learning in the fall but left the planning specifics -- how much is remote? must kids get tested? how will tracing work? -- to individual districts. Those plans were submitted to the state almost two weeks ago, but some districts have already tweaked their plans. Clarkstown public schools, in Rockland County, became the latest to say Wednesday it would start the year remotely.

On Wednesday, Cuomo said New York districts should take into account the recent spikes in some schools and universities that have already reopened in person as they continue to evaluate their plans. He pointed specifically to the University of Notre Dame, where nearly 150 students tested positive in a week.

The president of that school shut down in-person undergrad classes for two weeks in response. It's one of an increasing number of universities doing the same. Cuomo says the K-12 school environment is a worse breeding ground for COVID infections. If it spread to 130 or so on a college campus, he says that would likely equate to about 500 new infections in New York City because each student infected at school might go home and infect a multi-generational family.

"Look at the mistakes we're making. That is a failure of testing and contact tracing," Cuomo said Wednesday of the Notre Dame cluster. "Look at that, and then look at your school reopening plan and how would you make sure you don't wind up in that situation."

Amid the shift to an all-remote start for some U.S. public school districts and higher education institutions, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the nation's top health experts continue to agree the benefits of in-person learning for kids, especially those in grades K-12, outweigh the potential COVID health risks.

If school districts in New Jersey resubmit their plans and choose to go all-remote, which Gov. Phil Murphy has made an option, he says they must cite specific health and safety reasons for the change. And they need a concrete plan to get to some level of in-person learning at some point during the academic year.

"District leaders must certify to these reasons, and provide a timeline to get to in-person instruction," Murphy said.

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