Op-ed | Getting, and keeping, New York’s public schools open

Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), walks after exiting City Hall in New York City
Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), walks after exiting City Hall in Manhattan after education unions came to an agreement with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, that New York City public schools, the largest U.S. school system, will delay the start of classes by 11 days to September 21, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in New York City, New York, U.S., September 1, 2020.
REUTERS/Mike Segar


The road to re-opening New York City’s public schools in the face of the coronavirus has been a long and difficult journey, frustrating both parents and teachers.

But we now have in place a testing process that should permit us to keep schools open for our youngest and neediest children until the new vaccines bring an end to the pandemic — if all New Yorkers can pull together and follow medical safety guidelines.

After a rolling September opening, the most recent citywide school closing was driven by the fact that the citywide coronavirus infection rate reached three percent, the threshold the city established last summer.

The teachers’ union had argued back then that it would be better to apply that threshold in a targeted manner — on the city’s boroughs or even smaller areas — but the administration preferred to use a citywide measure.

With that threshold in place, the UFT led the fight this fall to re-open schools safely — with the right protective equipment, ventilation upgrades, vigorous cleaning, social distancing inside classrooms, and random testing of students and staff.

Thanks in large part to these efforts, the virus rates inside schools remained remarkably low even as infections rose in local areas.  Hundreds of thousands of children and adults were able to resume in-person learning.

Relying on the fact that in-school infection rates have remained so low, the city is now re-opening buildings for pre-k, kindergarten and elementary students using the state’s geographic targeting and increased testing requirements, on top of the city’s existing test and trace protocols.

One key to this re-opening was the UFT’s insistence on an even more aggressive testing – 20% of students and staff every week — including in areas that have very low neighborhood infection levels.  In addition, every child who returns to in-person learning is required to have a testing consent form on file.

All of these precautions won’t prevent some individual schools from temporary closure this winter and spring.

Under the city system of testing and tracing more than 300 buildings were temporarily shut this fall when infections were found.  Hundreds of other schools have been closed under the state’s parallel system of Yellow, Orange and Red Zones — restrictions that also affect businesses and restaurants in those neighborhoods.

Thanks to the coming vaccines, there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.  Following strict medical guidelines, the city should be able to keep schools open until we get there.

Michael Mulgrew is the president of the United Federation of Teachers.