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School safety during the pandemic

New York Teacher
Three people sit at desks in a classroom all wearing masks
Jonathan Fickies

Students and teacher William Lawrence follow pandemic safety protocols in this global history and geography class at the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology in Manhattan. 

Nothing has been more important this school year than keeping school staff and students safe during the pandemic. The stringent safety policies the union ensured were in place in September have kept the percentage of staff and students who test positive within New York City public schools low throughout the year.

New protocol for school closures

Following the science and the advice of its independent medical experts, the UFT negotiated with City Hall a new protocol for closing classrooms and schools that shifts the focus to preventing in-school outbreaks.

Under the new policy, which took effect on April 12, classrooms continue to go fully remote whenever one positive case is detected but entire schools no longer go remote when two unrelated cases are found. Now entire schools move to remote learning for 10 days only when four or more cases in different classrooms within one school can be traced to a common exposure within the school in a seven-day period.

If any school has two or more positive cases in different classrooms within seven days, in addition to those classrooms going remote for 10 days, testing increases to 40 percent for that school building for the next weekly testing cycle.

Schools that share the same building or are on the same campus are considered separate from each other, as long as the schools can prove that there is no physical interaction among the staff and students from the different schools. Read more about these new safety protocols on our Testing & Tracing FAQ page

PPE and cleaning supplies

Schools should have a 30-day supply of personal protective equipment including surgical masks for adults and children, N95 respirators, gloves, face shields for adults and no-contact thermometers for temperature screening.

Schools should have an adequate supply of cleaning tools and products for daily and nightly cleaning including an electrostatic sprayer, disinfecting sprays or wipes and hand sanitizer in each room.

Check with your school’s custodian or principal if you need supplies for your classroom. See our Safety FAQs for more information on PPE supplies, cleaning protocols and building safety. 

Adequate ventilation

New York City public schools have never been as well-ventilated as they are now. Older school buildings were well designed to prevent pandemics of an earlier era. Opening one or two windows three inches from the top is enough to ventilate a classroom of average to large size while keeping the room warm. As the weather gets warmer, more windows can be opened. Closets and walls often have vents or grilles; remember to keep these vents and grilles clear. Do not put anything on the radiator. Rooms with air conditioning units in the window may leave the air conditioning unit on if windows can be opened in the classroom.

In schools with central HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems, custodians have been instructed to install higher-efficiency filters and/or to open the dampers on the roof to maximum capacity to circulate the maximum amount of outside air. All air filters have been cleaned, replaced or modified as required and are being well maintained throughout the school year. UFT ventilation experts address safety concerns in this helpful video

Adequate space for social distancing

If you have questions about how many people a given space can safely accommodate, your chapter leader can request your school’s classroom capacity report from the principal.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on March 22 changed its guidelines to recommend 3 feet between students in classrooms as long as everyone is wearing a mask. Students must still stay 6 feet apart while eating and in common areas such as hallways and lunchrooms. School staff must still maintain 6 feet from other adults and from students. The CDC also recommends that students and teachers stay in distinct cohorts or pods throughout the day.

In April, New York State gave local school districts the option to implement the 3-foot rule. Starting April 26, New York City elementary schools may adopt the use of 3-foot social distancing protocols between students in classrooms if they need to in order to accommodate their newly opted-in students and/or to expand in-person learning to five days a week.

Random testing

A random sample of 20 percent of students and staff in all school buildings are tested weekly for COVID. Students must have a signed consent form for testing on file to attend school in person. Medical or disability-based exemptions are granted in limited cases.

All test results are confidential. If a student or staff member tests positive, the NYC Test & Trace Corps contacts everyone that person came into contact with shortly before the onset of symptoms without revealing the person’s name.

For more information about the school safety measures in force this school year, check the safety FAQs on the UFT website.

If agreed-upon safety protocols are not being followed in your school, report the situation to your UFT chapter leader or district representative or call the union at 212-331-6311 and ask to speak to a health and safety representative in your borough.

Related Topics: Coronavirus