Schools need a plan to respond to the COVID Spike

As anyone who works in a school right now can tell you, both staff and student absences are ticking way up. COVID rates are climbing at a rate that we haven’t seen since the Omicron surge in January 2021, and yet our union officers and DOE bosses are silent about it. There is no plan to institute a mask mandate, no threshold for absences at which schools would pivot to remote (either individually or as a school-wide system), and no acknowledgement of the danger that the continued spread will pose to members of our school communities. 

In recognition of this spike in cases, 11 hospitals across the city are requiring masks once again

The DOE should be taking proactive steps to track infection rates at each school and use that data to close individual schools (have them pivot to remote) as needed.

After the biblically epic rainfall of September 29, 2023, and the related “Shelter-In-Place” fiasco, the chancellor touted a lesson learned: the importance of tailoring the response to the individual school’s context. According to the chancellor, in the event of a future rainstorm, some low-lying schools might have to pivot to remote, but not the entire system. We are asking for the same logic to be applied to COVID infections as to flooding–have the schools with high rates of infection pivot to remote until the spike in cases has subsided. 

Rather than demanding a common-sense, data-informed plan, UFT advisory committee and UFT officers are taking more of an “ostrich-with-head-in-sand” approach. Our rank-and-file members, who are on the front lines of yet anotherCOVID surge, deserve more from their union. 

It is clear that Adams’ priority is to keep the schools open at any cost. The people who have his ear are not concerned with the wellbeing of students, families, or school staff. Meanwhile, school budgets are being eaten up by the costs of multiple staff absences. For example, in one high school with over 100 teachers, the principal has spent $25,000 on subs in a single week. In past COVID variant surges, students had “mass preps” due to staff absences and had to sit in the auditorium because not enough substitute teachers were available. 

Week after week, these staff absences are thinning out the school budgets, when the pandemic exposed the need for major capital improvements and upgrades to the crumbling school infrastructure, the need for remote access for all families, and the need to invest in ventilation and filtration systems for every school. We should be investing money into addressing the myriad needs of our students that vastly predate the pandemic and were further exacerbated by it.

The impact of three airborne illnesses at once– COVID, RSV, and influenza– will continue to harm families and staff alike. Somehow there is money for measuring the “learning loss” through more screeners than we have ever administered, but there is no money to upgrade the HVAC systems. Our silence as a union is complicity with the boss’ cowardice. 

Why aren’t we tracking the cases in the DOE? Why aren’t we testing students? Why aren’t we using data to close down individual schools as needed?