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Strike averted as mayor blinks

New York Teacher

After days of nonstop negotiations and with the threat of a UFT strike looming, Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to the demands of the UFT to postpone the start of in-person classes until Sept. 21 to enable educators to prepare for blended learning and to ensure school buildings meet the union’s safety criteria.

The city also agreed to the UFT’s demand for a robust program of random testing of students and staff, as set forth by independent medical experts, and immediate contact tracing if an outbreak occurs.

The Delegate Assembly, called for a special session, approved the agreement on Sept. 1 by a vote of 82% to 17%.

“New York City will now have the most aggressive policies and the strongest safeguards of any school system in the nation,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “We take very seriously our responsibility to keep our children and staff safe. Now it is our job to be vigilant and ensure that every school is following the required protocols throughout the school year.”

About 40% of all students will remain fully remote, as requested by them or their parents, and the remainder will return to school buildings the week of Sept. 21 in a blended learning model.

School administration, UFT chapter leaders and COVID-19 building response teams used the first nine workdays to address any outstanding safety issues. In late August and early September, the UFT fielded safety inspection teams to visit every school to verify building readiness and the availability of personal protective equipment for students and staff.

Only those school buildings that meet the UFT’s 50-point safety plan will open for classes on Sept. 21. The plan includes the availability of masks and face shields, a room-by-room review of ventilation effectiveness, an isolation room and a COVID-19 building response team.

A nurse in every school was another longstanding UFT demand that the city has agreed to meet as part of the plan. The city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation hired the additional school nurses and covered the cost out of its budget, Mayor de Blasio said.

One of the most important aspects of the Sept. 1 agreement is the commitment to random sampling and testing of adults and students in school buildings. About 10% to 20% of all students and adults in each school building will be selected each month for COVID-19 testing. The percentage of staff tested and the frequency of testing will rise significantly in schools in ZIP codes with higher levels of the virus.

Consent forms for the testing will be sent to parents and guardians. Students who refuse to be tested will be required to attend school remotely; staff members who fail to comply will be placed on unpaid leave.

Students or school staff who test positive must quarantine for 14 days. City tracing teams will be dispatched to the school immediately to determine potential contacts.

The presence of a COVID-19 case or cases confined to one class will result in the entire class moving to remote instruction; more than one case in a school will mean that the entire school will move to remote instruction until the contact tracing is completed.