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‘Biggest debacle in history:’ Union says no NYC schools should open under current plan, threatens legal action

No New York City public school should open for in-person learning unless it meets a bevy of safety criteria, including requiring “every single person, adult and child” who enters one of the nearly 1,800 facilities to be tested for Covid or the antibodies, the president of the city’s teachers’ union said Wednesday.

Mike Mulgrew, the head of the United Federation of Teachers, released a school safety checklist Wednesday outlining clear standards it says are needed. He says no school should open unless it meets all the criteria in that report.

“It is our judgment at this point that if you open schools September 10, it will be one of the biggest debacles in history,” Mulgrew tweeted. “If we feel that a school is not safe, we are prepared to go to court and take action. If a court determines we are breaking the Taylor Law, so be it.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has consistently said the city will prioritize student and staff safety above all else, rolling out new requirements like certified nurses in each school along with strict Covid protocol mandates and thresholds for re-closure.

The city’s teacher’s union, though, has questioned at every turn whether it’s enough. It says the plan “lacks specifics” and some measures may not be attainable at the individual school level. The issue of testing, for example, is of key concern. The city has no plans to require teachers, students or other staff to get tested for Covid, though says it strongly encourages it. Covid testing is universally open in New York, and the union wants stricter protocol as it relates to schools on that front. Supplies and procedures are two other prime concerns.

A growing number of major school districts across the country — from Chicago to Los Angeles to Houston and now Newark, New Jersey — are opting to start the school year completely virtual amid ongoing safety concerns. Universities like Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts abruptly scrapped plans to start in person next month, deferring that step until the spring semester — at least for now.

New York City is aiming for a hybrid reopening this fall, with most of the 1.1 million students spending two or three days a week in physical classrooms and learning remotely the rest of the time. About a quarter of families have opted to start fully remote, though they’ll have the ability to opt back in for in-person quarterly. Fifteen percent of teachers have indicated they’ll only instruct remotely.

Given those numbers, the teachers’ union says it expects up to 750,000 students and staff would need to be tested before school starts, under its guidelines.

“Working with medical experts, we have created a set of health and safety standards we will apply to every building,” Mulgrew said Wednesday. “Any school that fails to meet these guidelines should be off-limits to children, parents and teachers until the problems are corrected.”

More New York City principals are asking for a delayed start to in-person learning this fall, adding momentum to mounting calls in the five boroughs — and across the nation — to stall the physical return to class over ongoing safety concerns.

Principals at 41 schools in Manhattan’s District 6, one of nearly three dozen school zones across the city, sent a letter to de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza Tuesday officially asking for some sort of delay.

In a statement responding to the latest push, the city’s Department of Education said, “Educators and school leaders are doing tremendous work to make the most important school year in history safe and healthy for children, and we know they need information and resources to make reopening possible.”

“With a citywide infection rate of 1 percent, New York City is the safest major city in the country and we’re sharing guidance on instruction and safety on a frequent basis to continue planning for a September reopening,” the statement continued.

Notably, the DOE statement was devoid of a specific date to start the 2020-21 school year. Previously, de Blasio has said the goal was to reopen schools for in-person as well as remote learning as scheduled, on Sept. 10. It wasn’t immediately clear if the DOE statement reflected a willingness to push that back.

Officials have aggressively been working to shore up school safety ahead of the reopenings of New York City’s nearly 1,800 school buildings. De Blasio added another tool for city principals on Tuesday — a direct line to request immediate PPE supplies before and during the school year.

“This is about being ready. It’s about moving past fear to resiliency. Getting ready to have a school year where our kids get served in a safe way and putting in place the precautions needed,” de Blasio said. “This is about anything a school could need, whether it be hand sanitizer, wipes or soap, you name it. Face shields, surgical masks – whatever our educators need, whatever our staff needs, whatever our kids need, we are going to make sure it’s there.”

The hotline for principals will be up and running at some point this week. Parents of children attending the city’s public schools are also expected to receive their kids’ blended learning schedules starting this week.

Mulgrew says the plan to safely reopen schools — and keep them open safely — goes beyond hotlines. He and others say they want a more comprehensive plan than the one the city has provided — and that the city owes New Yorkers that much.

More than 100 union investigators — who have already started reviewing more than 1,400 school buildings — will check every school for health and safety measures that include the presence of a school nurse, a 6-foot separation between student desks, sufficient masks and other protective equipment, working ventilation systems to reduce the concentration of air-borne virus particles, and an isolation/quarantine room for students who develop symptoms of infection.

“These are not the mayor’s schools, they’re not my schools, they’re the community’s schools,” Mulgrew said Wednesday. “While our members want to be back in their classrooms, the safety of our students, their families and our staff comes first.”

Parents and educators across the entire state have lingering questions. How will testing work? What are the requirements? How will I know if my kids’ school has to be shut down? What about testing and tracing for teachers?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo says that unless these key stakeholders are comfortable with the answers to those questions and more, they may resist a return to in-person learning. If parents don’t send their children, schools won’t have children to teach, Cuomo says. If teachers don’t show up to class, kids won’t have educators.

The governor has required each of the state’s 700-plus school districts to hold a number of mandatory information sessions with parents and at least one focused solely for teachers by the end of this week.

Earlier this month, Cuomo cleared all New York’s 700-plus school districts to reopen for in-person learning in the fall but left the planning specifics — how much is remote? must kids get tested? how will tracing work? — to individual districts. Those plans were submitted to the state almost two weeks ago, but some districts have already tweaked their plans. Clarkstown public schools, in Rockland County, became the latest to say Wednesday it would start the year remotely.

On Wednesday, Cuomo said New York districts should take into account the recent spikes in some schools and universities that have already reopened in person as they continue to evaluate their plans. He pointed specifically to the University of Notre Dame, where nearly 150 students tested positive in a week.

The president of that school shut down in-person undergrad classes for two weeks in response. It’s one of an increasing number of universities doing the same. Cuomo says the K-12 school environment is a worse breeding ground for COVID infections. If it spread to 130 or so on a college campus, he says that would likely equate to about 500 new infections in a New York City public school.

“Look at the mistakes we’re making,” Cuomo said Wednesday.

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