Rank-and-File UFT Members Call for Immediate Measures to Stop School Spread of COVID-19 and Keep Students and Staff of NYC Schools Safe
Dear Mayor Bill de Blasio, Mayor-Elect Eric Adams, The NYC Department of Education, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and UFT President Michael Mulgrew,
The number of COVID cases in NYC is the highest it has been since the beginning of this pandemic. The NBA, NHL, and other professional sports have postponed games, colleges and Broadway shows in NYC have shut down in-person events due to the rise in cases, and nations across Europe and the rest of the world are re-engaging in lockdown protective measures. Despite this, there have been no additional safety measures implemented in NYC schools as students and staff now make up hundreds of NYC positive cases daily. From 12/13-12/19 alone, 4,584 staff and student cases were confirmed by the Situation Room, comprising 23% of all school cases reported so far this school year, and this number of cases is likely an undercount due to little COVID testing and data transparency.
Early data suggests that the Omicron COVID variant is much more infectious than other COVID variants and may evade vaccine and antibody protections, contributing to the current surge in known school cases. Early data show that those with two vaccine doses may not be as protected against Omicron; as of Dec. 19th, only 40% of children ages 5-17 have been vaccinated with two doses, and as of Dec. 9th only 8% of children 5-11 were. Those with booster doses may have more protection against the Omicron variant, but there is no available data for how many NYC adults have gotten boosters, and children 15 and under are currently not eligible for boosters. Children under 5 cannot be vaccinated or tested at all.
Due to this alarming spike of cases in NYC, rank and file members of the UFT are calling for immediate policy action to stop the spread of COVID-19 in New York City Public Schools, including:
- Short-term transition to remote learning for schools with COVID cases
- An immediate remote option for students and families
- Universal Weekly and Baseline COVID testing
- Increased citywide testing resources and schools used as vaccination sites
- Data Transparency
- Those exposed to COVID quarantine
- Ventilation Fixes
Remote Learning Options
We demand a short-term transition to remote learning for all schools with current COVID cases. While in-person learning is best for our students in healthy conditions, the spike in COVID cases has made it impossible for many schools to staff classrooms and for students to stay safe due to staff and substitute shortages. Furthermore, lack of COVID testing and ambiguous school closure guidelines have led to a lack of trust in the DOE’s ability to identify and abate school spread. Transitioning to remote learning temporarily will stop COVID from spreading in schools, allow students and staff time to test and quarantine, and keep students and staff safer in-person in the long term. Students and families need to be prepared with devices and WiFi to access remote learning. The threshold for the amount of cases leading to a transition to remote learning needs to be clear and known to the public; schools that meet said criteria should transition immediately to remote learning.
We demand an immediate remote option for students and families with concerns about COVID, without punitive measures taken against students, staff, or their families. While the DOE has not publicly shared attendance data, frontline staff know attendance numbers in NYC are dropping as families grow more concerned about COVID cases and large groups of staff/students are in quarantine with no remote option. Students, staff, and families are rightfully worried about the rapid increase in cases, especially right before winter break and gatherings to come. This school year, families who have chosen to keep their children remote due to COVID concerns have not only been denied a remote learning option, but have had ACS called on them, despite legitimate concerns about COVID.
Universal Weekly and Baseline COVID Testing
We demand universal weekly PCR testing of all students and staff, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, including for 3K, Pre-K, and Kindergarten students. The current policy of testing a random 10% of consenting non-vaccinated 1st-12th grade students is woefully insufficient. PRESS NYC reports that last week only 4.5% of students were tested in-school and about 87% of all positive NYC schools cases were found from outside testing. Weekly PCR testing is done at NYC private schools like Poly Prep and throughout the Los Angeles school district, the second-largest U.S. school district after New York. In addition, all people entering school buildings with symptoms of COVID should, in addition to passing the health screener, be required to take a rapid test to stay in school buildings, and schools must be supplied with rapid tests for this purpose.
We also demand baseline PCR testing results for all students and staff prior to returning to schools in January and prior to returning from other breaks such as Mid-Winter Recess and Spring Break. Prior to school reopening this fall, Los Angeles had baseline testing of all students and staff in its schools and found 3,654 cases that did not get into school sites. New York should implement the same policy for our safety. Schools should be used as testing sites during breaks towards this goal. If it is not possible for students and staff to receive results of PCR testing by January 3rd, school reopening should pivot to remote and resources be allocated so that students and staff can get PCR tested prior to returning to school in-person.
We demand that students and staff have increased and ready access to COVID tests towards this goal. All students and staff should have ready access to antigen at-home testing in addition to weekly PCR tests. Mayor de Blasio closed 20 city-run COVID sites prior to the onset of Omicron and winter COVID surges; these and other sites should be restored, and people who are immunocompromised, disabled people, and essential workers at high-risk of COVID such as educators should be prioritized for testing.
Schools as Vaccination Sites
Many schools this fall served as city-run first-dose vaccination sites for our students; this program should continue and with second doses offered to students. Schools should be trained as sites of vaccine education.
Those Exposed to COVID Quarantine
We demand that all staff, including but not limited to out-of-classroom educators, aides, and providers be informed of possible exposures and be able to give information of other possible close contacts, students and families be informed about classroom cases, and that those who are considered close contacts quarantine. Current DOE policy directs only those who have tested positive and those who are unvaccinated within six feet for 15 minutes to quarantine for ten days; however, based on what we know about COVID know this may not be enough to stop COVID spread at schools. Due to the collapse of the Situation Room, close contacts are often not notified. Close contacts must also include those who share space with others while eating and drinking unmasked. Staff and students whose household members test positive should also quarantine. If test-and-trace responsibilities fall to school staff, time spent should be compensated.
We demand data on school attendance and COVID cases that is current, accurate, accessible and user-friendly to the public. The NYC Department of Education has not been transparent about attendance rates, number of staff and students testing positive in schools, or about cases in schools. The NYC Situation Room has not kept up data on schools, including on its Daily COVID Case Map, as it is completely overwhelmed with cases. Situation Room data has also recently been inaccurate: according to Professor Jen Jennings of Princeton University, between 12/13-12/19 the Situation Room dashboard undercounted daily cases by 1,470 when compared to cumulative positive cases reported on the same dashboard. The Situation Room should remain adequately staffed and open evenings and weekends to provide logistical support to students, staff, and schools.
We demand actual HEPA filters be provided to classrooms, including possible provisions of supplies for Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, especially for classrooms and schools that do not have mechanical ventilation. Gothamist found that classrooms without mechanical ventilation had higher rates of COVID. All schools have CO2 monitors to measure air changes per hour (ACH), which should be utilized regularly to test classrooms occupied with students and staff and results posted publicly for the public to see. Classrooms found not to have adequate ACH should immediately be provided HEPA filters or not be used. Meals should be scheduled outside when possible. All non-essential meetings and events should not be held in person until COVID rates are curbed.
We demand the United Federation of Teachers, our teachers union, advocate for its members rather than wait for the next Mayoral administration to fight for school safety and protections for students, staff, and our community.