Teachers in Brooklyn call for full remote learning in COVID-19 ‘hot spot’ neighborhoods

Over a dozen teachers called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to close all public schools in the city’s COVID hot spots during a protest outside of Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn on Friday afternoon.

FDR teachers associated with the United Federation of Teachers union justice caucus, known as MORE UFT, chanted “F, F, F City Hall gets an F” and “let’s go remote before we croak”  in between warning passersby of the southern Brooklyn neighborhood’s high COVID-19 infection rate. 

UFT President Michael Mulgrew has already pressed the city to take action. Thursday, Mulgrew threatened to take de Blasio to court if the city does not close public schools in COVID high-risk areas. 

Bensonhurst is one of 11 neighborhoods in the city currently experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases with a reported positivity rate of 6.69%, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s most recent data. 

Over a week ago, DOH officials warned that COVID cases were growing at “an alarming rate” in a handful of Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods and later revealed that the “hot spot” neighborhoods accounted for a quarter of all new cases of the virus citywide. 

The new clusters pushed the citywide COVID positivity rate to 3.25% on Wednesday for the first time in months and during a critical time in the city’s COVID recovery– just as school reopened for thousands of middle and high school students and restaurants resumed indoor dining.

The spike has caused alarm among some educators and parents worried about COVID spread in school buildings and critical of the city’s school testing plan. At least one case of COVID has been reported in 100 school buildings and early childhood learning centers since in-person learning started for the city’s youngest students on Monday, according to The New York Times., a school for students with special needs in Elmhurst has been closed for two weeks after two people tested positive in the building. 

“It’s scary,” said Sarah Yorra, and English and ELA teachers at FDR High School at the demonstration.”It’s like the mayor’s plan is ‘why don’t you get infected first and if you can prove that, then we’ll close down… It’s like no one learned anything.”

Between 10-20% of a public school’s teachers and student body will be randomly tested for COVID-19 once a month, according to the Department of Education. But researchers at New York University argue that this approach falls short and that in order to properly detect and prevent outbreaks the city needs to test at least half of students and teachers every two weeks, the Times reported. 

Public school teachers called on the city to close schools in neighborhoods where COVID cases are increasing at an “alarming” rate outside of Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in Mapleton, Brooklyn. The number of Mapleton residents testing positive for the virus is close to 7%, according to the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, well above the city’s 3% threshold. (Photo by Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech)

“Nobody is refusing to teach, we just want fully remote learning, we just want safe conditions to do our work,” said FDR science teachers Mike McCormick. Some teachers at FDR are so frightened of contracting the virus in the building that they are looking for medical accommodations in order to be exempt from teaching in-person, Yorra said. 

That fear could be squashed though if the city would increase school-based testing to 50% of students and teachers, deploy more pop-up COVID testing stations in hot spot neighborhoods, post more signs with COVID safety guidelines in multiple languages inside of FDR, and for the city to be more immediately transparent on testing data for all city zip codes, according to a statement from a coalition of teachers from school district 20, which covers the borough’s southwest corner, that Yorra shared.  Some of the teachers demonstrating were not affiliated with the union. 

 “We’ve clearly sounded the alarm about the spikes we’ve seen in Brooklyn and Queens. What we’re seeing is alarming, and warrants immediate action, which is why we’re surging testing resources and ramping up our mask and social distancing compliance, with the right to resort to fines as necessary,” said City Hall spokesperson Avery Cohen in response to the protest.”  We’re keeping a close eye on our schools and our indicators and we will decide, based on data and science, when and if widespread closure is appropriate.”

Until then, teachers will continue to sound their own alarm as COVID cases continue to go up and more students and teachers chose to stay home. 

“We are starting to hear the sirens again from our classrooms, we don’t want to relive March and April…This is not safe for us, for our students, for our neighbors or for the whole city,” the statement from district 20 teachers added.