Testimony of UFT President Michael Mulgrew before the New York City Council Committees on Education and Health
My name is Michael Mulgrew, and I am the president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). On behalf of the more than 190,000 UFT members, I would like to thank Chairs Mark Treyger and Mark Levine and all the members of the council’s committees on education and health for holding this crucial hearing on reopening New York City (NYC) public schools. I am here today to specifically speak in support of Resolution 1410-A, which calls on the NYC Department of Education (DOE) to only open public school buildings that have met the health and safety standards prescribed in the UFT’s 50-item plan and that implement a medically recommended mandatory random COVID-19 testing program for adults and students in all school buildings as agreed upon by the administration and the labor organizations representing school personnel, including the UFT, the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators (CSA) and District Council 37 (DC 37).
Before I begin, I want to make one thing clear: Our teachers want to be back in their classrooms for in-person teaching, and I think we’ve all come to recognize the value of in-person learning for our students; however, our No. 1 priority will always be the health and safety of our students, educators and our entire school communities. I commend the administration’s willingness to work with us these past few weeks and to agree that a rushed reopening of all our public school buildings on Sept. 10 would have been reckless and irresponsible. We’ve made the right decision: A decision to develop a mandatory system of repeated random monthly COVID-19 testing of adults and students in all NYC public school buildings, and to only reopen to staff and students those public school buildings that have met the health and safety standards outlined in the UFT’s 50-item safety plan supported by independent medical and public health experts from Northwell Health and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Spring and Summer 2020 Timeline of Events
Let’s start with a brief timeline of events summarizing our journey over the course of the last six months so we have a common understanding of where we are and how we got here. Rereading the Wall Street Journal article “How the Coronavirus Spread from One Patient to 1,000 Now Quarantined in New York,” dated March 5, 2020, is a humbling reminder of the fear that engulfed our city in the spring. It tells the first documented story of community spread of COVID-19 in New York when a New Rochelle resident inadvertently became a super-spreader of the virus during his travels in and around New York City in late February and early March. The resident’s travels to and from his home, his attendance at a service in a large congregate space, and the infection of his direct family members, including his children, all became direct links in just a matter of days to the infection of hundreds of New Yorkers.
Shortly thereafter, conversations in New York City and in the surrounding suburbs turned to the fate of the city’s public school district. By early March, we had a firm understanding that having 1.1 million students and hundreds of thousands of public school staff members travel daily through our city and congregate in schools was amplifying the spread of the virus. My calls to shut down the public school district entirely began in early March, but the administration failed to respond. On March 13, because my conversations with the Mayor and the DOE hit a stone wall, I issued a strong public statement calling on the Mayor to close all public school buildings and move teaching and learning to an online remote format in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. The Mayor and the DOE finally relented, and school buildings closed to students on March 16.
School buildings ultimately remained closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year, and remote learning became the new norm. At first, we faced many challenges with remote instruction — whether it was ensuring student engagement or making sure every student had access to an electronic device — but as time went on, we made improvements. And while we all know remote learning was and still remains far from perfect, I applaud our educators for their efforts in making full-time remote learning a reality, even as many believed it was impossible.
Concerns with the Initial DOE School Reopening Plan
Over the summer, Gov. Cuomo and the New York State Education Department instructed our school district to develop and submit a plan for the start of the 2020-2021 academic year. When the July 31, 2020, deadline approached, the Mayor and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced that NYC would open its public school buildings on Sept. 10 using a hybrid model that would include a combination of onsite instruction and remote learning. Families were given the opportunity to apply to have their students learn remotely full time; teachers with underlying health conditions could apply for full-time remote teaching, but not necessarily if their family members have co-morbidities.
However, as much as the plan had in generalities, it lacked in details. It included information on when a public school building should be closed, the infection rate level at which the entire school system would be shut down, and the expected amount of personal protective equipment (PPE) public schools should have available. But lacking was public disclosure of the exact details for each building. For example, has every public school building been inspected and evaluated to ensure the health and safety of all students and staff members? Does each public school building have a COVID-19 building response team to implement all the procedures that can maintain the school community’s health and safety? Is there a randomized testing program in place to catch asymptomatic and symptomatic cases throughout the school year?
We strongly believed that a failure to have the details ironed out for each school building in our system would inevitably result in another outbreak as was experienced in other school districts and colleges and universities that chose to hastily reopen their school buildings and campuses. Take, for example, the Cherokee County School District in Georgia, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Alabama and, most recently, the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oneonta here in New York State.
- The Cherokee County School District in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, reopened all of its public school buildings on Aug. 3, 2020. By Friday, Aug. 7, the principals at 11 schools in the district had sent letters to families informing them students had tested positive for COVID-19. Altogether, close to 1,200 students and staff were ordered to quarantine, and on Tuesday, Aug. 11, one high school closed its doors followed by another on Aug. 12, until both reopened on Sept. 3, 2020. A third high school shut down on Aug. 16 and also reopened on Sept. 3.
- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reverted to full-time remote learning on Aug. 17 after the reopening of its campus on Aug. 10 caused a surge of COVID-19 cases during the first week of classes.
- On Aug. 29, it was reported that coronavirus infections were rising sharply at the University of Alabama, where school officials had reported more than 1,000 cases since classes began on Aug. 19, causing officials to make tough decisions about closing down parts of the local economy, including bars and restaurants.
- On Monday, Aug. 31, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras had to shut down SUNY Oneonta’s campus for two weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak. More than 30 students tested positive in the first few days of in-person classes, leading to a full investigation and a decision to test every student on campus. Those tests revealed an additional 71 positives, for a total of 105 positive cases, pushing the total number of positive cases over the state-imposed threshold that forces college and university campuses in the state to stop in-person instruction for two weeks.
With so many examples of poor school-reopening experiences, we understood that if we failed to get this right in NYC, we would inevitably find ourselves reopening and closing down public school buildings throughout the fall and winter — especially with the start of the flu season in September — which would not only continue to take a toll on our city’s economy but, even worse, would force us to face the grim reality of once again flattening infection, hospitalization and death curves.
As was outlined, the DOE’s school reopening plan failed to have the trust and confidence of school administrators, parents and teachers. On Aug. 12, the city’s public school administrators, represented by the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators, delivered a letter to the Mayor and schools chancellor questioning the lack of adequate planning for public school buildings to reopen and requesting a delay to the start of in-person learning. As for parents, the number of families opting to have their students receive full-time remote instruction in the fall continued to grow, hitting 366,553 on Sept. 1, according to amNew York Metro. As for us, the educators, we made it clear that we would refuse to walk into unhealthy and unsafe public school buildings on Sept. 10, and we would not do so until a plan was approved by independent medical and public health experts, not bureaucrats paid by the administration.
DOE Adopts UFT Health and Safety School Reopening Demands
In the end, we decided to take matters into our own hands, fully understanding the need and desire to reopen our public schools, as well as the value of in-person learning, in particular for our most vulnerable student populations. With the help of independent medical and public health experts from Northwell Health and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health we developed a 50-item plan containing the health and safety standards each individual public school building must meet before it is classified as safe to reopen. We were advised to have all students and staff tested before the first day of school and to only reopen public school buildings after putting in place a robust program of random intermittent COVID-19 testing for adults and students once in-person learning resumed.
Our safety plan emphasized the following necessary safeguards:
- Supplies. Each public school must pass the union’s comprehensive safety review, including the presence of a full-time school nurse, sufficient protective and cleaning supplies and proper ventilation.
- Procedures. Each public school must have a COVID-19 building response team to implement the procedures to keep that school safe, including isolating anyone who is infected with the virus and dealing with all aspects of the situation.
- Testing. Every child and adult should be tested before entering the building. Experts said that without prescreening, the virus would walk into school buildings on Day 1. A system-wide rigorous protocol of random intermittent COVID-19 testing and tracing of adults and students in all public school buildings once in-person learning resumes would be needed to detect asymptomatic spread.
On Aug. 19, I announced our plan, sitting alongside the medical and public health experts from Northwell Health and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, New York City elected leaders including Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, parent leaders, and community groups including the New York State Chapter of the NAACP, the New York Immigration Coalition and the Arc of Justice, to announce our union’s medically advised Health and Safety Reopening Plan.
While the DOE at first resisted incorporating our demands into the district’s school reopening plan, eventually the administration understood the need to put the health and safety of our educators, students and their families first. Under the terms of the agreement, all New York City public school buildings will remain closed to students until Sept. 21, while final safety arrangements are completed, including assigning a school nurse to every building, checking ventilation and ensuring the presence of sufficient protective and cleaning supplies. The decision on whether to reopen a building to students will be based on the UFT’s 50-item safety plan, including social distancing of student desks, the availability of masks and face shields, and a room-by-room review of ventilation effectiveness. Buildings or rooms that do not meet safety standards will remain closed.
Teachers working in public school buildings that have been classified as safe will report to schools on Sept. 8. They will work with their colleagues to plan and develop strategies for the blended remote/in-person instruction that will be the learning method for the overwhelming majority of the city’s public school students.
After consulting with our independent medical and public health experts, we were assured by epidemiologists that prescreening for COVID is useful but the results are soon out of date. They recommended mandated random monthly testing as much more effective. As a result, as part of our agreement, the DOE will establish a mandatory, robust system of repeated random COVID testing of adults and students once in-person learning begins.
A blind representative sample, composed of 10% to 20% of all students and adults from every NYC DOE school, will be selected each month for COVID-19 testing, with results available within 48 hours. All random COVID monitoring tests will be free of charge to participants. Parents will be informed that, as testing is performed throughout the year, if parental/guardian consent has not been obtained for a student who has been selected randomly for testing, the student will be moved to the remote learning cohort. Any staff member who elects not to participate will be placed on unpaid leave.
Students or staff found to have the virus, even in the absence of symptoms, must quarantine for 14 days. City tracing teams will be dispatched to their school immediately to determine potential contacts. The presence of a COVID-19 case or cases confined to one class will result in the entire class moving to remote instruction; if there is more than one case in a school, the entire school will move to remote instruction until the contact tracing is completed.
Schools will switch to 100% remote instruction if the percentage of positive tests in New York City is equal to or more than 3% using a seven-day rolling average; however, even if the overall case rates across New York City remain low, all public school buildings could be closed in the event of recurrent, uncontrolled outbreaks of COVID-19 in schools.
Any New York City zip code that reports a percentage of positive tests of 3% or higher using a seven-day rolling average will be saturated with additional testing and tracing including, but not limited to, increased testing of individuals in schools, the opening of new testing sites, and door-to-door canvassing and targeted robocalls for at least a 14-day period or until the seven-day rolling average for positive tests is below 3%, whichever period is longer.
All terms in this agreement were incorporated in an amendment to the city’s plan for reopening public schools that was submitted to the state.
The story of New York City’s COVID-19 outbreak in the spring is grim; it’s a tale of a city’s hospital system on the brink of collapse and an unimaginable death toll, including 79 DOE employees during the 2019-2020 school year. It’s an episode in history New Yorkers wish never to relive. We know our decision to close our public school buildings in March helped contain the spread of the virus; we are now aware that reopening public school buildings without a thorough plan poses many dangers as we witness the problems in other school districts and on college and university campuses across the country.
By adopting our demands for evaluations of public school building and a mandatory randomized testing program, I believe we will ensure that our school communities are safe, and we will avoid the revolving door of opening and closing school buildings that we have seen in other cities and states. Our UFT members are ready and eager to be back in their classrooms, but not at the expense of any individual’s life.