Testimony before the New York City Council Committee on Education regarding Fall 2021 school opening protocols
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 city’s fall 2021 school reopening protocols.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that since the beginning of the last school year, the members of our union have been committed to providing students as much in-person instruction as possible. Last summer, our union leadership set up building response teams to assess the ventilation in all of our school buildings, and at our urging, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) put in place health and safety protocols recommended by the public health experts we consulted.
Ultimately, we were the only large city school system in the country to open our doors to students last fall, while also offering a remote option. The health and safety protocols we spearheaded ensured that our students and staff remained safe, ending the school year with just a 0.03% COVID-19 positivity rate. Our school buildings were among the safest places to be during the pandemic.
As we look to the start of this school year on September 13, we are excited to have all of our students and educators back in our schools. We have a lot of work to do, as many students will return to school in need of academic, as well as social and emotional, support. The COVID-19 pandemic has been traumatizing for all of us and there is no doubt that our school buildings will serve as healing centers for students and their families.
Our first priority, as always, is keeping our students and staff safe and our schools open. That is why when vaccines first became available — but were difficult to access — our union leadership helped connect our members to vaccine providers. This spring we successfully matched 35,000 UFT members with vaccine providers. While the DOE now says 60% of all its employees are vaccinated, based on anecdotal accounts, we at the UFT believe approximately 80% of our teachers (including those who live outside the city) are vaccinated.
The city’s teachers have led the way on this issue. The de Blasio administration is flexing what it believes is its legal authority to establish a vaccination mandate. We will continue to work to make sure any implementation includes provisions for medical exemptions and accommodations, which by law must be negotiated with the UFT and other unions, and if necessary, resolved by arbitration.
We support the administration’s plans for masking, ventilation, social distancing and testing protocols in schools, especially with the rise of the Delta variant. We believe the guidance provided in the health and safety guidebook, titled, “DOE Homecoming 2021 Our Commitment to Your Health and Safety,” will help keep students and staff safe this year. We are also pleased to see the administration has finally acknowledged the need for virtual instruction for medically fragile children and for those in quarantine. Our talks on remote instruction with the administration and the DOE are ongoing.
We plan to reinstate our building response teams from last year and as an additional layer of protection for our students and school staff, we will train union leadership to monitor carbon dioxide levels in classrooms, particularly in those where three feet of social distancing between students is not possible. We expect that this additional layer of precaution will ensure proper ventilation.
Thanks to the federal stimulus funding and the commitment from the state to fully fund Foundation Aid over the course of the next three years, we have a unique opportunity to address the learning needs of our students. First, at our request, every student enrolled in kindergarten to grade 10 will have a universal literacy and numeracy diagnostic this fall. Our intent is to gauge exactly how much additional support our students need.
Next, it is absolutely time for us to take class size reduction seriously. We support Int. 2374-2021, sponsored by Chair Treyger, to cap classroom capacity at 35 square feet of net floor area per student by September 2024. During the pandemic, we have come to learn that small class sizes are not only in the best academic interest of our students, but also essential for their health and safety.
We believe each school should now prioritize the development of an intervention team to address the learning and social and emotional needs of our students as we enter the third school year affected by this pandemic. We want to thank the City Council for providing enough funding in the budget for every school to hire a social worker, as well as for fully financing the fair student funding formula at 100%. These two initiatives, in addition to the $635 million New York City Academic Recovery Plan, will help schools build out their intervention teams to include academic intervention specialists, as well as other professionals, who can support our students’ recovery.
We will continue to work with the administration and the DOE to ensure our schools are prepared for a full in-person reopening this fall. There is no doubt that learning happens best in person, in the classroom. Throughout the pandemic our city’s educators have been dedicated to best serving our students, whether remote, hybrid or in-person, and will continue to be guided by that commitment this fall.