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UFT threatens actions if unsafe school buildings open

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UFT President Michael Mulgrew sitting at podium
Erica Berger

UFT President Michael Mulgrew discusses the union’s proposal for the opening of New York City public schools, while Dr. Jacqueline Moline, the vice president for occupational medicine, epidemiology and prevention at Northwell Health, looks on.

School buildings cannot open on Sept. 10 unless they meet stringent coronavirus safety standards, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said at a press conference Aug. 19, and vowed to go to court or take a job action — including a strike — if the city attempts to reopen any school building that does not meet the criteria in a safety plan created by the union.

Mulgrew was joined at the press conference at UFT headquarters by medical experts and community and civic leaders.

"It's time for New York City to put forth a transparent, clear plan under the guidance of medical experts so parents and teachers who have been stuck in this fearful dilemma of how to make an informed choice know the expectations for every single school," Mulgrew said, as they decide whether to return to their buildings.

Two UFT officials sitting at a podium
Erica Berger

AFT President Randi Weingarten, on the large screen, discusses school openings as panelists Dr. Jacqueline Moline and Dr. Mark Jarett of Northwell Health listen.

He unveiled the union's comprehensive school safety plan with safety reviews and testing protocols designed by medical experts. More than 100 union investigators have already started the process of reviewing the city's more than 1,400 school buildings for compliance.

Mulgrew promised to go to court or take a job action in spite of the penalties the union would face because of the state's Taylor Law, which prohibits public sector labor strikes. The city is aware of the plan but has not responded to the union's demand that it be used as a roadmap to a safe reopening, Mulgrew said.

"The only way we are going to get through the coronavirus crisis is by working together to keep each other safe," Mulgrew said.

The UFT has lost 130 members to COVID-19, including 67 in-service members, 61 retirees and two family child care providers. Many criticize the city for a delay in closing schools at the start of the pandemic, a delay they believe put school staff and students at risk. "The city went to hell and back, and we're not going back to hell," Mulgrew said.

The safety plan requires the presence of a school nurse, a 6-foot separation between student desks, sufficient masks and other protective equipment, ample cleaning supplies, working ventilation systems and an isolation room for students who develop symptoms of infection while at school, as well as a rigorous and extensive tracing program in the event of a COVID infection.

Mulgrew also said anyone who plans to enter a city public school "must have evidence that they do not have the COVID virus." He urged all adults and children to get a COVID-19 or COVID-19 antibody test. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, the presence of COVID antibodies means you cannot spread the virus.

Three UFT officials speaking at a press conference podium
Erica Berger

The UFT press conference on school openings featured panelists (front, from left) UFT President Michael Mulgrew and Drs. Jacqueline Moline and Mark Jarret of Northwell Health in Shanker Hall and a number of other officials live via Zoom (background).

Those who do not have a positive antibody test must be tested for the active coronavirus in the 10 days before their school reopens. Those who test positive for the virus must learn or teach remotely. Because many students and staff are expected to remain at home for full-time remote learning, the UFT believes a maximum of about 750,000 children and adults will need to be tested before school resumes.

The UFT is also demanding that, once in-person learning resumes, the city initiate intermittent random testing of school communities to detect asymptomatic spread.

Mulgrew chastised the city for ignoring the union's pleas as early as April to begin planning for the reopening and said parents should opt for remote learning if the city tries to force an unsafe school to reopen. "No one should put themselves and their families at risk," he said.  

Opening the schools without following the procedures in the safety plan could be "one of the biggest debacles in the history of the city," Mulgrew said, citing places like Indiana and Georgia where hasty and ill-planned school openings led to a resurgence of the virus and renewed shutdowns.

Mulgrew was joined live by Northwell Health's Dr. Mark P. Jarrett, the deputy chief medical officer; and Dr. Jacqueline Moline, the vice president of occupational medicine, epidemiology and prevention; and remotely by Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, some of the experts who helped create the plan. Also joining the nearly two-hour press conference via Zoom and endorsing the plan were city Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson; Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers; Hazel Dukes, the president of the NAACP New York State Conference; Steven K. Choi, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition; the Rev. Kirsten John Foy, the founder of Arc of Justice; and parent Gloria Corsino, a copresident of the Citywide Council on Special Education.