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 hearing to give members of the public an opportunity to comment on Introduction 2374-2021, which would require each classroom in our city school district to provide 35 square feet of net floor area per student by September 2024.
The time is now. We have to address the problem of overcrowded classrooms in our schools for once and for all. I never thought that in the middle of a pandemic, with calls from public health experts asking us to socially distance students in schools, we would receive 615 grievances related to overcrowded classrooms at the beginning of this school year. The question I ask myself and others is: If we don’t get this done in the middle of a pandemic with the financial resources we currently have in hand, then when will we?
The problem of overcrowded classrooms in New York City schools is not new, and I firmly believe it will remain a unique health concern as COVID-19, together with other contagious respiratory diseases, continue to be a public focus for years to come. By reducing overcrowded spaces in schools through occupancy limits, as this bill intends to do, we will improve the city’s ability to safeguard students and their families from infectious diseases.
The change proposed in this legislation will help keep in-person schooling available five days a week should flare-ups, variant strains or other contagious diseases pop up. Using social distancing and proper ventilation capacity to provide a safe space that can accommodate an entire class of students will allow schools to remain open full-time in the future, which is ultimately our goal.
Fortunately, the infection rate in schools today is low, but we have not eliminated all the risks related to COVID-19, and it is scientifically accepted that infections will continue for the foreseeable future, as we’ve seen with the most recent surge in the Delta variant.
The evidence is clear that higher occupant density and the reduced social distance among students that results increases the risk of exposure to airborne illnesses. And although scientific guidance on health and safety has evolved during the course of the pandemic, it has ultimately settled on the understanding that proper ventilation, calibrated for occupancy needs and the reduction of viral spread, is an essential layer of COVID-19 risk mitigation. It’s the reason some of the first mandates issued by the state at the start of the pandemic were to limit occupancy levels in restaurants and other entertainment spaces.
We cannot return to our pre-COVID school system with crowded and under-ventilated classrooms. Rather, reducing the occupancy levels that were typically permitted in classrooms pre-pandemic will not only reduce viral exposure and infection, but also increase our city’s ability to mitigate illness and death in the face of new variants or waning vaccine immunity.
Section 27-358 (“Occupant load”) of the New York City administrative code already require 35 square feet of net floor area per student for kindergarten classrooms and 20 square feet per student for all other classrooms. These occupancy limits are based on fire and emergency evacuation standards, as opposed to consideration for ventilation capacity or social distancing necessitated by COVID-19 or other possible infectious diseases.
Section 49.07 (“Physical facilities”) of the New York City health code, which has not been updated for about 80 years, likewise governs “the minimum allowance of space for each student in a classroom” and “requires 15 square feet of net floor space, that is available space exclusive of furniture,” per child.
Informed by the experiences of schools, students and parents during the pandemic, and by best practices regarding health, safety and facility capacity, this bill will update the health section of our city’s administrative code by requiring 35 square feet of space per student in each classroom for all grades. By our calculations, this would mean a typical classroom in New York City measured at 500 square feet would accommodate up to 14 students, and a 750 square-foot classroom would accommodate up to 21 students.
Understanding that this may not be an easy feat in some school buildings, I appreciate the three-year rollout featured in the legislation, with all schools in compliance by September 2024. Real estate vacancy rates in the city have skyrocketed due to the pandemic, and we have been blessed with billions in additional funding from our federal and state governments. We cannot squander this opportunity. It’s time to get creative and make real everlasting changes in our schools.
It’s disappointing to me that the administration has decided not to engage with stakeholders on this legislation, and instead to focus on strongly opposing this bill. The fact of the matter is, we cannot continue to do nothing about class size. Our city has for years received funding to reduce class size, yet nothing has been accomplished. It’s time we take this legislative approach because without such pressure, there will be no change.
Once again, I thank you for holding today’s hearing. Reducing class size is not a new issue for us; our union has been advocating for it for decades. We already knew smaller class sizes result in an academic benefit for our students, and now the pandemic has shown us the health and safety benefits of smaller classes. We have the resources in our hands; let’s summon the willpower to get it done.