[This op-ed was originally published in the New York Daily News on April 29, 2020.]
The federal government has now passed a stimulus package that includes $25 billion to increase coronavirus testing and help reopen the nation’s economy. This is the first step in what must be a sustained, coordinated effort by the federal government to provide the massive funding and kickstart the supply chains necessary for New York and other states to accomplish what needs to be done to amp up diagnostics and allow businesses and schools to reopen.
New York City has already paid a tremendous price in the pandemic, with more than 160,000 cases, and more than 12,500 deaths, according to the city Health Department. More than 50 UFT members have lost their lives during the pandemic.
New research suggests that the virus was present in New York much earlier than we first thought. We cannot know how differently the pandemic would have played out if schools and other public facilities had been closed earlier than they were. Logic would certainly suggest that better planning would have helped, in particular in the case of schools, which didn’t introduce teacher training in remote instruction until mid-March.
But we do know that without committed federal partners, the price of coronavirus will continue to rise, because no state will be able to test and re-test hundreds of thousands of children and adults; to notify staff and students of potential viral exposures; to provide the personnel and supplies necessary for social distancing, screening and tracing; and to provide the materials needed for thorough cleaning and disinfecting of buildings where infections have emerged.
Some of the safety measures and protocols are already in place here, though at a much smaller scale than the massive efforts that will be necessary.
New York State already requires that incoming students have a certificate of vaccination against more than a dozen diseases, including polio, measles, mumps, hepatitis and other serious infections. The state could expand this requirement by insisting that all students and staff who are planning on attending school be tested in August for active or prior exposure to the coronavirus.
In September, medical personnel need to be available at every schoolhouse door to perform rapid temperature tests for all students and staff. Anyone with a temperature above 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit should be sent straight home, or directly to medical treatment.
Despite these precautions, since children carrying the virus may not show symptoms, it is possible that cases of the coronavirus may still emerge in the schools, where the concentration of students and staff makes it difficult if not impossible to practice effective social distance.
In such cases, the city needs to dramatically ramp up both its cleaning and disinfection protocols and the public notification procedures that are already mandated for other communicable diseases. The state will need the resources to aggressively trace those who came in contact with those who show symptoms.
Even these precautions may not be enough. Because schools have so many children in limited space, we may need to experiment with other options to adhere to social distancing, such as split schedules where students come in morning and afternoon shifts, or on alternate days.
While the buildings are closed, public school in New York is very much in session now. With only a few days of preparation and training, thousands of our members have managed to use technology to effectively engage children and their families in subjects ranging from reading and math to art and music.
My members are looking forward to seeing their students in person again. The state and the city have the time in the coming months to create a thoughtful, comprehensive plan to safely reopen school buildings and bring teachers and children back together.
Despite our members’ eagerness to return to their classrooms, we are going to insist that no one — student, teacher or family member — should be back in school until protections like these are in place.