Hunter College Campus School teachers support possible strike over COVID-19 safety concerns

Hunter College Campus School on the Upper East Side. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Teachers at Hunter College Campus School on the Upper East Side voted on Sunday to support a possible strike over school safety concerns, just days before in-person classes are set to begin for students. 

The vote began on Saturday evening and ended Sunday with 85% of teachers supporting a strike, according to the teacher’s union the Professional Staff Congress. Negotiations between union leadership and CUNY are taking place Monday, with an agreement expected to reached by Tuesday.

For weeks, teachers have called for health and safety protocols at Hunter College Campus School equal to that at other New York City public schools. Since Hunter is the only K-12 school controlled by the CUNY system, Department of Education standards on COVID-19 testing, tracing and closures do not apply to the campus school. 

Teachers have been particularly worried about the school building’s poor ventilation system. Most of the classrooms in the massive brown-brick building, mocked by some as the “The Brick Prison,” on East 94th Street are windowless and the few windows that do exit have difficulty opening. 

Last week, a New York Supreme Court judge granted PSC a temporary restraining order against CUNY barring school administration from requiring teachers to enter classrooms without HEPA filters. The order covers the “fortress-like” school building and Silberman School of Social Work at 119th St. and 3rd Ave., where ninth and tenth graders have some of their classes. 

Teachers argue that CUNY violated its own reopening guidelines by installing untested “air purifiers” instead of HEPA filters.

Ventilation has grown to be a top concern among parents and school staff across the city given the increasing amount of research suggesting that COVID-19 is more easily spread in stagnant air.

Hunter College Campus School has a history of ventilation issues and, like many New York City schools, it has functioned for years with a broken HVAC system. Out of the school’s 87 ventilation units, 40 units needed major repairs last year to provide proper airflow. 

CUNY and the Hunter College Campus School argue that those filters were installed last Friday. Court documents show that HEPA filters were purchased by CUNY on Monday, Sept 21 and received on Thursday, Sept. 24. 

Although the filters have been ordered, teachers are not ready to return to in-person instruction until CUNY agrees to allow an independent inspection of every classroom’s ventilation system.

“The Hunter administration’s lack of communication about safety protocols, their disregard for our health and safety, their purchase of improper air purifiers, and their attempt to pass off a memo from the HVAC contractor as a report from an independent authority has eliminated the trust we have in our administration,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen. “In a time when health and safety must be our top priority, they are choosing to risk all our lives unnecessarily.”

Most of Hunters 1,500 students began remote learning on Sept. 16, and the school delayed it’s planned in-person learning start date after the union filed the lawsuit last week.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 29, thousands of K-5 and K-8 students are expected to return to school for in-person classes citywide as a part of the DOE’s hybrid learning model.