55 NYC School Staff Test Positive; Nearly Half of Students Opt for All-Remote

The head of the city's largest teachers' union reached a deal with City Hall to avoid a strike earlier this month; he says City Hall isn't holding up its end of the bargain as far as testing is concerned

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What to Know

  • One week before classes begin in New York City, 55 DOE employees in multiple boroughs have tested positive for COVID-19, Mayor Bill de Blasio said; that's out of nearly 17,000 school-based staff tested
  • In-person learning for all New York City public schools is scheduled to resume Sept. 21; deaths of teachers in at least 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 more than a month, though officials are concerned about increasing risk accompanying an increase in closer-to-normal activities

Monday marks exactly one week until the re-scheduled return of in-person classes in the nation's largest public school district. Yet parents should be forewarned it could be re-scheduled yet again, as New York City's biggest teachers' union continues to protest what it says is a raw deal on testing.

A total of 55 school-based Department of Education employees have tested positive for COVID-19, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday. Of those, at least 45 are teachers, the union said. Those figures are out of nearly 17,000 tested, marking a positivity rate around 0.3 percent, the mayor said.

"Some people will test positive. And those folks will immediately get support. After two weeks, those professionals will come back to work -- and they'll complete the entire school year," de Blasio said. "The same will happen with students. We have to remember that for the very small percentage of people who test positive for the coronavirus, it is a very temporary reality."

While the 55 positive tests mark a minute percentage of DOE employees tested, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew says many tests administered two weeks ago are just now coming back. He also says the city isn't launching contact tracing efforts fast enough.

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


Mulgrew and educators across the five boroughs are pushing for de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza to move to an all-remote learning method for the upcoming school year, citing problems with the testing component of the deal they made with the city that staved off the first potential teachers' strike in decades. As part of that deal, de Blasio agreed to push in-person back from its initial start date of Sept. 10 to Sept. 21 and ramp up school-related testing.

The push for all-remote learning comes as more and more NYC public school families are deciding to go that route. According to the city's DOE, 42 percent of students have enrolled in all-remote learning, with approximately 422,200 students having made the request. That's up from 366,600 on August 28, a 15 percent increase in just two weeks.

Mulgrew sat 6 feet away from de Blasio earlier this month as the mayor announced the new deal. Lately, Mulgrew has been standing outside of various schools in the five boroughs, claiming the city isn't holding up its end of the bargain on the testing front.

He joined other union reps and educators Monday as they held a "Not Until It’s Safe" day of action on Monday to protest what they say are unsafe conditions at some school buildings. Nearly 5,000 people have signed a petition started by a caucus within UFT to call on a fully remote start to the 2020-21 academic year.

Later in the day, Mulgrew told reporters the city "really needs to start looking at everything they've agreed to because at this point, they're not making the grade." Mulgrew said that as of Monday, schools were not ready to open, and that the UFT might take the city to court over the lack of transparency concerning the test and trace program.

"It seems to be something the administration doesn't really want to talk about," Mulgrew said. "If I was grading a paper they submitted, they'd be getting an F. They need to do their homework."

Testing isn't the only concern. School staff say they returned to classrooms to prepare for the new school year last week and found buildings with sinks, windows and toilets still broken. Some reported not having enough personal protective equipment or adequate staffing for the hybrid learning model. Mulgrew said custodial staffs had not yet gotten all the cleaning materials they need. If those hurdles aren't addressed, Mulgrew says the Sept. 21 opening is in jeopardy.

"We are still having issues with supplies. Serious issues are arising when we get a reported case to when they report it; two to three day lags," the union president said. "It's unacceptable; we're not going back to March."

The mayor, asked how confident he was in-person school would start as re-scheduled in a week, said in his briefing he had faith educators would get it done.

"What I've said to President Mulgrew is: Give us any situation that is not what it should be and we will address immediately," de Blasio said.

Protests planned for Monday included teachers in Sunset Park and Flatbush section of Brooklyn, who said they would work outdoors over fears they would not protected from COVID-19 in schools. Teachers also picketed outside Murry Bergtraum High School in Manhattan with parents in the morning.

Ninety-six percent of the city's thousands of public school classrooms passed air inspection, de Blasio said earlier this month. Of the 10 school buildings that failed ventilation inspections, four have gotten the needed repairs, City Hall said -- though a teacher from PS 139 says she found "dirty vents" that were never cleaned as promised by the city. De Blasio and Carranza have both clearly and repeatedly pledged they would not reopen any classroom unless it is safe.

A teacher from PS 135 said that all the teachers in her building will be working outdoors tomorrow to protest the “unsafe” conditions inside. The photo shows one of the "dirty vents" the teacher says were never cleaned as promised.

In response to criticism about testing last week, a spokesperson for 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 percent of tests."

"While we continue to navigate the realities of a pandemic, there will be positive cases. We are putting people's health above everything else by quickly identifying and isolating positive cases, which is a leading effort to prevent transmission," the statement continued.

De Blasio announced Monday the city was also making priority testing available for students ahead of the start of the school year -- and creating a DOE COVID Response Situation Room to coordinate responses across multiple groups throughout the year. That will expedite both decision-making and response.

As for the staffing concerns, the mayor also said Monday the city would deploy an additional 2,000 educators to supplement current teams. That number will come from redeployed central staff, long-term substitutes and other temporary staffers.

The principals' union later blasted that number as "woefully short," and a sign that the city has "no comprehensive plan."

Teachers stage an outdoor "working protest" at one affected school, saying there is inadequate testing and tracing of COVID-19 cases. News 4's Myles Miller reports.

New clusters are to be expected, de Blasio and Carranza have warned. Citing the problems that have emerged on college campuses across the country and in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also said there will be a degree of that in K-12.

At the same time, he warned -- in no uncertain terms -- that no public school district should reopen in person if it's not ready. Reopening in person too earlier will just cause more disruption because it may mean a re-closure, he said.

The governor also questioned whether the city's COVID positivity test threshold of 3 percent is sufficient when it comes to re-close. More people will take mass transit, more people will be in congregate settings. All that increases exposure.

For his part, de Blasio has said that testing threshold is one of the most stringent in the globe (the city has been well below that 3 percent mark for months now) -- and testing is just one component of the five boroughs' multi-faceted plan.

It's the mitigation efforts -- like mask-wearing, social distancing, hybrid scheduling and other measures -- that the city has layered within its back-to-school framework that will help prevent a single case from exploding, he said.

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

If one school building does hit 100 cases, Cuomo has recently said that requires an immediate two-week move to all-remote. He also is requiring every single school in New York to report testing and positivity numbers, among other COVID metrics, to the state daily. Each school will be issued a sort of rolling COVID Report Card that parents can assess on a regular basis to "get the facts."

Some schools are moving all-remote well ahead of that 100-case threshold, at least temporarily. Syosset Middle School on Long Island became the latest to do so Monday after a single teacher tested positive for COVID-19.

In Plainedge, the superintendent of schools sent a letter to families Sunday saying about 40 middle and high school students had played a pickup football game the prior day with a child who tested positive for COVID-19. Water bottles were thought to have been shared, the letter said, and all students involved in the game -- along with their siblings -- are being required to quarantine for two weeks. After that, they must produce a negative COVID test before they can return to school.

The coronavirus challenge facing schools will only be compounded by flu season, Cuomo and others have warned. With vaccination levels falling off amid the pandemic and flu and COVID symptoms similar, Cuomo said last week his team is looking into possibly making the flu shot mandatory for public school students.

New York City separately launched a new flu campaign Monday to encourage people to get their shots -- and get them early.

Many public schools in New Jersey, meanwhile, reopened last week, while a handful of larger districts, including Hoboken, are keeping students fully remote this week before offering a hybrid model starting Sept. 21. A fair share of districts in the Garden State, including Newark, opted for all-remote ahead of the start. At least six reverted to all-remote shortly after opening due to COVID cases.

New Jersey is one 11 states to see COVID-19 cases growing by 5 percent or more, based on a weekly average to smooth out daily reporting, according to a CNBC analysis of data collected by Johns Hopkins University. That list went up by three states in just a matter of days (it stood at eight Friday, then hit 11 by Sunday).

When will school -- or anything else -- in the tri-state area begin to feel like the old days again? Likely not for some time. Experts agree life in America won't get close to "back to normal" until a vaccine is widely available. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said that likely won't happen until late 2021.

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