Teachers won’t rule out strike after COVID-19 outbreak at Hunter College Campus Schools

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Hunter College Campus Schools
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The head of the teachers’ union representing Hunter College Campus Schools (HCCS) said Sunday that all options are on the table to address a recent COVID-19 outbreak at the Upper East Side campus that sickened two children and two teachers.

A CUNY spokesperson said the first positive case at the HCCS, a kindergarten-through-12th grade charter school, was reported on Oct. 12 by the parents of a student who last attended classes there on Oct. 8. Since that time, two teachers and one other student tested positive — prompting the school’s closure on Oct. 15 and 16 for “intensive cleaning.”

Despite the outbreak, HCCS administrators have said they would open the school Monday, with exception of the kindergarten class of 16 students and three teachers; they will remain in quarantine through Oct. 26, according to CUNY. 

But Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) representing HCCS teachers and CUNY educators, was far from satisfied with the decision. During a Zoom call with parents, teachers and the press on Oct. 18, she said reopening HCCS would be “a very, very bad and potentially dangerous mistake,” and that the administration needs to reset its approach to keeping students and teachers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bowen also did not rule out a potential job action among educators. In September, the PSC voted to approve a strike call if the school administrators did not clarify their action plan for COVID-19 and ensure proper ventilation. Negotiations followed, and the strike was ultimately avoided within a day of the union vote.

“This should be the moment to hit pause, close down the school and figure out what is working and what isn’t working,” Bowen said. “Something isn’t working, and the sane, humane thing to do is to admit that it’s not working, it’s hard to make it work, and to fix it before anyone else gets sick.”

According to Tina Moore, the PSC chapter chair and a math teacher at HCCS, the kindergarten classes where the outbreak originated were in different “pods,” groups of students designed to remain isolated from each other. But even that could not stop the spread of COVID-19.

Lia Albuquerque, a kindergarten teacher at HCCS, explained the setup further. Though the pods keep the students separate during classes, it does not prevent the students from interacting with each other at other times — such as lunch periods and traveling to and from the bathroom.

“The pods are unrealistic,” she said. “When we do snack, lunch, recess, any time they’re outside, they’re being mixed. We’re doing, at times, snacks with other grades, which we weren’t supposed to be doing.” 

In addition to tweaking the school’s COVID-19 action plan, Bowen said, the union seeks greater PPE and other protective equipment for the teachers and staff, as well as increased testing. They also called upon CUNY to provide HCCS teachers who are at higher risk of severe infection for greater accommodations to work remotely.

The union, Bowen charged, hopes the situation will compel the administrators to address the issues at HCCS — but reserves the right to strike and/or take legal action if they fail.

“We may have to reactivate that conversation with members. I hope we don’t have to,” she said. “It would be such a shame to do this kind of action when we have teachers who are facing the risks, who want to be with the children and are doing this for the community. We shouldn’t put those teachers at risk, and we shouldn’t put the children at risk.”

In a statement, a CUNY spokesperson said: “The HCCS continues to work daily to make sure that they are following all our protocols. As they await formal approval to be part of the DOE randomized testing program, they are able to support the ESPTA saliva testing initiative. In addition, beginning this Thursday, there will be a ‘Hunter Hawk Walk’ to the HHC clinic to encourage testing each Thursday (the last day of the school week).”