Testimony of UFT President Michael Mulgrew before the New York City Council Committee on Education
My name is Michael Mulgrew and I serve as the president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). On behalf of the union’s more than 190,000 members, I would like to thank Chair Mark Treyger and all the members of the New York City Council’s Committee on Education for holding today’s oversight hearing on the Department of Education’s (DOE) changes in COVID-19 protocols and implementation of the vaccine mandate.
Last year, we were able to say that the city’s public schools were the safest spaces in a community because of the strong multi-layered protocols we put in place to protect our students and school staff from COVID-19. However, this year, I must warn you that I think our current approach is much too lax.
While the COVID-19 infection rate in NYC schools remains low — a 0.16% positivity rate last week — we have reason to be concerned about the delta variant. I have traveled across the country and have seen the desperation in communities with pediatric Intensive Care Units at capacity. It’s a dire situation we absolutely need to avoid here.
We cannot lose focus, and we certainly cannot let our guard down. Today, I want to share with you the ways I believe the DOE has watered down three key protections for our public schools: quarantine rules, social distancing rules and testing and tracing protocols.
Taken together, these changes put our unvaccinated children at greater risk, and they disrupt school communities at a time when they are already stretched thin.
We started the school year with a very strong quarantine policy that was abruptly changed only a week after the first day of school. Under the new guidelines, unvaccinated students will no longer have to quarantine after coming in close contact with a student who tested positive, as long as they were masked and kept 3 feet apart. The administration previously required all unvaccinated close contacts of a student who tested positive to quarantine for 10 days.
With this change in policy, the challenge is that it is now up to the school staff to determine close contact. In a NYC school today, if there is a confirmed COVID-19 case, the principal, teachers and other school staff are, for all intents and purposes, the contact tracers. It is their responsibility to determine, for example, who sat next to the infected child during lunch, how long they were together, how long they had their masks off, were the children 3 feet apart, etc.
We are not test and trace professionals, and we should not be responsible for this added duty. We need stronger quarantine rules, especially in the elementary school grades where all students are unvaccinated because they remain ineligible for any of the available vaccines.
Many schools cannot meet the goal of maintaining 3 feet of distance between students while, at the same time, ensuring that their full school roster is in the building every day. Rather than be honest and transparent about it, school communities were told to figure it out for themselves, particularly in our most overcrowded schools.
As a result, many of our members have informed us that their schools begin measuring the 3 feet from the middle of a student’s desk, rather than the edge. This may sound like a minor change, but it is not. This can be the difference between 16 square feet per student with barely any aisle space between desks and 35 square feet per student, which provides for 3 feet of space from the edge of every desk.
We are going into the winter months, meaning we will be inside more. While adults are vaccinated, children under 12 are not, and too many of our middle and high school students are still not vaccinated. We need to do what the administration failed to do over the summer — put our heads together and try to figure out an appropriate solution, either by renting space or making programming changes in schools.
Testing and tracing
It’s a shame we had to once again explain to the administration the importance of COVID-19 testing in schools. The initial policy published by the DOE planned to test school populations bi-weekly, but at our urging, the policy was shifted to weekly. There are, however, several issues I would like to highlight when comparing this year’s testing policy with last year’s.
Last year, 20% of the full school population, including adults and students, were subject to random COVID-19 testing, which could be mandated because there was a remote option for families who refused.
This year, only 10% of the unvaccinated student population can be tested — and actually only a subset of that group because only those with signed consent forms can be tested. In other words, this year we are excluding from COVID-19 testing all adults, all vaccinated students, and unvaccinated students who do not have consent forms.
I want to be clear: This is dangerous. While vaccines are now mandated for adults, we know there will be breakthrough cases, most of which will be asymptomatic. But it’s important we catch them for the safety of unvaccinated students and all families. We need an early warning system, which means we want a percentage of vaccinated adults tested as well.
As for tracing in schools, as mentioned earlier, we are not tracing professionals, yet it has become an added responsibility in our daily routines. When a person who has tested positive has been in a school, Test & Trace will send the principal of the affected school a template for reporting COVID-19 close contacts to the Situation Room. A Test & Trace liaison is supposed to contact the principal within a few hours to assist in the completion of the COVID-19 close contact form.
The form asks for date, duration and distance of potential "close contacts." It sounds simple until you think through the number of students a typical 3rd-grader spends time with during the course of a day; multiply that by 6 or 8 for middle and high school students who switch classes for subjects.
The bottom line is that our principals and school communities need help, which means restoring the Situation Room hours so they are the same as last year’s.
We cannot accept these watered-down health and safety policies that have been put in place. Young children are unvaccinated, and we have plenty of older students who are unvaccinated as well. We need to restore quarantine guidelines so an elementary classroom with a confirmed case goes remote, 3 feet of social distancing is measured from the edge of one desk to the edge of another desk, appropriate space is rented for overcrowded schools or there are real programming changes, and Situation Room tracing protocols and hours are restored to match last year’s.
Thank you for your time. I hope you will use your voice to advocate for these recommendations.