We Keep Us Safe: On Calling Out Sick in a Pandemic

Due to surges of COVID spread, schools have mass staff shortages, affecting instruction, and hundreds of thousands of students and families have voted with their feet not to enter the school buildings. This was an obvious outcome when, as of Jan. 6th, over a third of all New Yorkers COVID testing in the past week have tested positive. With Mayor Adams refusing to baseline test all students to prevent mass infection and refusing a remote option for students who are home, and our UFT leadership refusing to take action, educators and families must take action to keep schools safe. 

We support students and families who stay home, and educators calling in sick and organizing actions, to substantially lower COVID spread and keep our schools safe and functional. Only when students, families, and educators take action will we have the power to push the politicians and our union leadership to do the right thing.

It is clear with current case rates that many students and staff will not attend school in-person for at least the next week, especially as more test positive and COVID spreads through NYC. We finally know that 38,000 student and staff positive cases were reported over 12/23-1/4 to the overwhelmed and understaffed Situation Room, which is no longer contact tracing. Due to inadequate testing at our schools, many students and staff came into schools positive with COVID.

UFT leadership is enabling a system where hundreds of thousands will be exposed to COVID from being in school buildings, and now by proxy their family and their community.

Mayor Adams and Chancellor Banks are not being honest about the unsafe school conditions exacerbated by the pandemic and staff shortages. Many students are shivering because we have to keep the windows open with the city refusing to invest in high-quality ventilation. Students are frightened of COVID because everyone knows someone who’s had COVID, including those still struggling with long COVID symptoms like brain fog and fatigue. Many students and educators have shared over the past two days missing special education and ENL services because of substitute shortages, having combined classrooms, very few students or staff being tested at school, masses of students sitting in the auditorium, and not having the proper masks to stay safe.

Educators, including those of the MORE-UFT caucus, have led actions to stop COVID spread in schools. Without a remote option, hundreds of thousands of students have no access to school, and many more students, staff, and their families risk catching COVID. NYC has already lost over 35,000 people to COVID.

The Department of Education clearly does not have a plan to support schools during this COVID crisis. Instead of supporting absent students and schools dealing with unsustainable staff shortages, the Adams administration has doubled down and insisted schools remain open in-person without the support necessary to open safely. 

Due to staffing issues, PS58 did not have in-person instruction on January 3. PS58’s principal cited that “many of our staff members have tested positive for COVID, or are experiencing COVID symptoms and are awaiting test results. Also, staff members are home taking care of COVID positive family members.” The school reopened the next day, with its one-day shutdown under investigation by the DOE, even though the principal requested an emergency closure Sunday afternoon 1/2 and did not receive a response from the DOE for several hours. 

When nearly 80% of staff called out sick at Charles Dewey and Sunset Park Prep on January 4, the DOE insisted school remain open, even as the central staffers sent to replace educators lacked the teaching licenses needed to properly supervise students. The DOE does not have staff to cover just one school campus, let alone for 1,600 schools.  These cases and others highlight how unrealistic the DOE and Mayor Adams’ expectations of school reopening are at this time. 

Teachers who've shown the systemic failures of the DOE are now being attacked. Educators, school-based staff, and union members are not to blame for overcrowded, understaffed, and underfunded classroom conditions that have made COVID especially ripe for spread. We’ve been fighting for funding, increased staffing, and safe working conditions for decades. 

The blame lies squarely with New York’s political leaders. We saw this in March 2020 when the governor, mayor, and schools chancellor did not listen to the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who petitioned them to temporarily close the city’s schools to stop the spread of the virus before it was too late. New York City officials have pushed austerity on our schools for decades, leaving them understaffed and underfunded.

Some of the blame now also lies with the top officials of our union, the UFT, who have not adequately advocated for basic safety measures like universal testing, upgraded masks and small class sizes which would have enabled a safer reopening this January. 

The chancellor, the mayor, the governor will say teachers have abandoned our students. They’ll say we only care about our vacation time, we only care about our paychecks, we care about everything but our students. We know that’s not true. We know that because we care for our students every day in the overcrowded schools these politicians created. It’s time to stop listening to the pundits and politicians. It’s time to start listening to our students.

We don’t work for the politicians. We work for our students. It’s time for us to lead. It’s time for us to keep all of us safe. To curb the spread of COVID, we are calling for a temporary remote option — of just a few days — while all students and staff get tested and this wave of COVID subsides. We demand a safe, adequately resourced return to full-time school which requires universal testing and appropriate PPE provided to all school community members. There are no excuses for doing otherwise.