Though New York City’s public schools are back in session after the winter break — the Omicron COVID-19 surge be damned — some teachers and school administrators say the city’s made a big mistake, and that schools should offer at least a remote learning option for parents to keep their children safe.
The United Federation of Teachers (UFT), a union representing public school teachers across the city, echoed these concerns with UFT President Michael Mulgrew holding a press conference on Jan. 3 calling for a virtual option.
“It has been very frustrating,” said Mulgrew. “Right before the break the teachers heard every day how the situation room was working, and every teacher in New York City knew that was not true.”
Despite advocacy from Mulgrew and the UFT, UFT Solidarity — an internal caucus of about a thousand educators within the UFT — believes that not enough was being done to protect students and teachers from COVID.
“With the COVID cases being so high, I think it is prudent for us to go online to help reduce transmission,” said Luli Rodríguez, a special education teacher at the Heritage High School in East Harlem on Jan. 4. “Some of these school administrators are really going through it.”
Currently the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends individuals stay at least three feet apart to protect against infection, but Rodríguez said it is not always possible within school classrooms.
“The student to class-size ratio is pretty much the same across the city,” said Rodríguez. “This is why teachers are advocating [for online instruction] because we know that there is no social distancing in classes. In my classroom we are lucky if we have three feet. We are literally one on top of the other.”
UFT Solidarity members also reported that due to the lack of substitute teachers available for when a teacher does contract COVID, other teachers are asked to cover for them – sometimes merging two classes together in order to do so.
Within the UFT Solidarity group, some members have started an additional caucus called United for Change. With a high membership of mothers, women of color, and parents of LGBTQ+ students, United for Change plans on running against UFT President Mulgrew in the spring according to Rodríguez.
“We all believe in a democratic system that Mulgrew — even though he is the union president — is not following.” said Rodríguez. “The Department of Education has their agenda, and we have our union leader who does not oppose these things. He’s really not supporting the teachers and he is really not supporting the families.”
In a press conference on Dec. 28, then-Mayor-elect Eric Adams assured New Yorkers that virus levels within schools are low, citing this as his reason to keep schools open and to maintain in-person instruction.
“We want to be very clear” said Adams. “Your children are safer in school than anywhere else.”
However, on Monday school attendance was low, with only about 67% of students present for class compared to the usual 91-92% attendance rate prior to the pandemic.
Another complaint from teachers was that personal protective equipment (PPE) was not available in certain schools when instruction started on Monday.
“The UFT set up a hotline for every school’s union rep (roughly 1,800) to report any issues with rapid response kits/ masks/COVID supplies,” said a UFT spokesperson via email Jan. 5. “We received approximately 110 calls Monday. The vast majority were about principals refusing to distribute the KN95 masks and rapid COVID test kits to staff.”
While Mayor Adams continues to advocate for in-person classes, saying “virus levels are extremely low”, Rodríguez and her UFT Solidarity colleagues disagree.
“I think that is an outright lie,” said Rodríguez. “By not testing everyone how can you have an accurate number of transmissions at the school level?”