New York City public schools do not yet have enough staff or the safety protocols in place to reopen school buildings on Sept. 21 as planned, UFT President Michael Mulgrew warned on Sept. 14 at a virtual press conference.
Mulgrew vowed to continue monitoring the city's compliance with its safety agreement and to prepare for "every scenario," including going 100% remote.
"These are the hardest conditions anyone has had to face," Mulgrew said. "There is little faith in the system at this moment."
He said the city's failure to live up to its agreement with the UFT for a quick turnaround on COVID-19 test results has undermined confidence in the city's ability to protect school communities. Although the city agreed to make test results available within 24 to 48 hours, the process has taken longer in most cases.
"We are getting reports of two to three days for testing to be confirmed," he said, adding it took six days in one case.
The mayor reported that so far 55 New York City school employees have tested positive for COVID-19. That is a positivity rate of 0.32% among the 16,982 tested.
Mulgrew blasted Mayor Bill de Blasio for his comment that some positive COVID-19 results are "a very temporary reality."
"That's not something he should be saying," Mulgrew said. "Not after 20,000 people have died. That's a permanent reality for those families."
Mulgrew said the city was facing an acute teacher shortage that the mayor's vow earlier that day to have 2,000 additional educators in place in schools by Sept. 21 would not solve.
"We have a major staffing problem in our schools," he said. "We've been talking about this for weeks."
Complicating the issue, he said, is the failure of the city to share the latest number of students opting for fully remote learning.
Jan Scott, the UFT chapter leader at Chelsea Career and Technical Education HS in Manhattan, and Michael Vlahovic, the chapter leader at the Harbor School on Governors Island, shared concrete examples of the staffing shortages at their schools.
"We have 10 or 11 classes without a teacher," said Scott, noting that her school also does not yet have a school nurse.
Vlahovic said his school has received three of the 10 in-person teachers it needs to cover for teachers who have received medical accommodations and will be teaching remotely. When the principal alerted his superiors about the staffing shortage, he said, he was told "to be creative" with programming to solve the rest.
Mulgrew said the DOE must abide by the staffing agreement it reached with the union and later submitted as part of its state plan. "The city really needs to start looking at everything they've actually agreed to and have promised the parents, the teachers and the students," and "what they submitted to the state."
"You don't deal with a problem by wishing it away or asking people to be 'creative,'" he said.
Scott appealed to the city not to put its school employees and students in harm's way.
"We are educators and when the city needed us, we were there," said Scott. "What we're asking for is fair. You can't send anyone into a school building if there are not enough teachers."
Vlahovic agreed. "We want to teach more than anything," he said, but "we've also seen a lot of death. We want to go back safely for us and for our students and their families."