Teachers union threatens lawsuit against city as de Blasio insists on keeping NYC schools open

Near Times Square on March 13. (Photo by Milo Hess)


The United Federation of Teachers, the union that represents most teachers in New York City’s public schools, strongly criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio Sunday for keeping the city’s schools open amid growing calls for their closure amid the coronavirus outbreak.

“Because of his irresponsible decision to keep the public schools open,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew wrote on Saturday evening in a message to public school parents, “Mayor Bill de Blasio can no longer assure the health and safety of our students and school communities.”

Mulgrew said on Sunday at a press conference that the UFT plans to sue the city Monday if schools aren’t closed. There are also plans to file a complaint at the state level with the Department of Labor over unsafe working conditions.

“We have a plan to go to the Supreme Court tomorrow to force the city to comply with the state health guidelines,” Mulgrew said Sunday. “The State Health Act that says a school must close if there is a positive test case and at the same time all parents have to be notified and that the medical investigation happens.”

“We don’t do this lightly,” Mulgrew added. “We understand that the school is the heart of the community. And we also understand that with each school being the heart of the community comes great responsibility and trust with that school community, and that is why we are asking all of the school community to come together. Enough is enough. Stop the insanity. Let’s plan to make sure that we get through this crisis together with the least amount of damage and right now nobody feels confident that that is what this city is doing.”

The Mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mulgrew said in his letter to parents that nationwide, over 21,000 schools, with more than 15 million students, have closed in efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus. He also noted that many NYC institutions have already shut down, including museums and Broadway, and that sports leagues have postponed seasons.

“The mayor is recklessly putting the health of our students, their families, and school staff in jeopardy by refusing to close public schools,” Mulgrew wrote to school parents. “We have a small window of time to contain the coronavirus before it penetrates into our communities and overwhelms our health care system’s capacity to safely care for all the New Yorkers who may become gravely ill.”

Mulgrew asked parents to call 311 to demand the mayor close the schools. The UFT also wants the city to maintain services for medically fragile and vulnerable students, Mulgrew wrote, along with setting up emergency support for first responders and health care workers to give childcare support and other needs, and to give access to testing and care.

On Friday, Mayor de Blasio acknowledged concerns about schools staying open, and wrote in a series of tweets, “I spent 17 years as a New York City public school parent. I understand the anxiety. But I also know how many parents are depending on us keeping our schools open.

“Even with all the shock of the last two days, well over 600,000 students came to school today,” de Blasio added. “We are taking new steps to make sure students and staff are safe by increasing social distancing.

“Those kids and their families are counting on our public schools to be there,” the mayor continued. “Parents who work as first responders and health care workers depend on our schools so they can be out on the front lines of this crisis.”

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has been among those calling for schools to shut down.

“It is time to close our public schools for the safety and well-being of the students, teachers, and staff,” Johnson said in a statement on Friday.

“This is not an easy decision, but we must take aggressive measures to stop the spread of coronavirus/COVID-19,” Johnson said. “Teaching and learning cannot take place under these circumstances. 

“The City must immediately come up with a plan that includes childcare relief for families who need it so that our essential workers, especially healthcare workers, can continue with their duties,” Johnson added. “We must also ensure meals and medical care are provided for students who rely on schools for these crucial services.”

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