By Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech
Families of New York City public school students are being left in the dark about the number of teachers testing positive for COVID-19, weakening teachers and parents already fragile trust in the city’s ability to safely reopen schools come Sept. 21.
Although Mayor Bill de Blasio delayed the start of school by 11 days, teachers returned to school buildings on Sept. 8 to receiving training and prep for the upcoming school year. A day after buildings reopened, reports of instructors testing positive for COVID-19 began circulating online.
The Department of Education first confirmed that two Brooklyn teachers, an instructor at Sunset Park’s P.S.001 The Bergen Elementary School and another employed at M.S.88 The Park Slope Education Complex, contracted the virus to Gothamist.
But the total number of teachers that have tested positive for the virus since Sept. 8 remains unclear. Whether the city plans on sharing data on positive cases among teachers in the future is also a mystery. The Justice caucus with the city’s United Teacher Federation, also called MORE UFT, claims that there now 8 teachers that have self-reported testing positive for the virus. Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Teachers Federation, told NY1 and NBC reporters that 16 teachers working in 16 different buildings have tested positive for COVID-19. The Department of Education has yet to confirm or deny this number.
NEW: 16 NYC teachers test positive for #COVID19 at 16 different buildings@UFT President Michael Mulgrew tells @andrewsiff4NY
test results not being turned around in 24-48 hours as promised by the city#nbc4ny
Last week #COVID testing:
— Steven Bognar (@Bogs4NY) September 10, 2020
“Obviously, school hasn’t begun yet,” de Blasio told a Chalkbeat reporter who asked what is the city’s plan to release information on future COVID-19 cases among teachers going forward. “We’re going to find out each day when there are new cases and take appropriate action including testing and tracing activity.” The city plans to randomly test 10-%-20% of a building’s students and teachers every month.
“We don’t have a perfect way to expect here it depends so much on individuals,” de Blasio told reporters on what to expect in terms of COVID-19 cases when classes begin.”I think we’ve got folks in the school communities who are really going out of their way to be careful. New York City Health Commission Dr. Dave Chokshi added that the city has “multiple information streams” and has other ways of finding out about positive cases among teachers.
Both of the infected teachers self-reported their positive test results to their higher-ups, according to Councilmembers Mark Treyger and Brad Lander. MS 88 teachers say that on Wednesday the infected staff member told colleagues that they had tested positive and from there fellow staffers were able to identify who was at risk of having potentially contracted the virus from close contact. At 6:00 am, less than 24 hours after learning about the positive case, teachers received an email from the DOE to return back to work in-person immediately, the investigation had concluded and the building was now safe.
“It quickly became evident that despite the assurance that rigorous contact tracing was completed, we know this to be false,” the letter states adding that 36 hours later at least two teachers that came in close contact with the infected staffer still have not received communication from contact tracers or city officials. ” Staff are still in the process of self-reporting contact with the individual who has tested positive and have taken it upon themselves to quarantine, despite lack of guidance from the city.”
The delay in information is strikingly similar to how the DOE initially did not publicly report COVID-19 positive teachers and staffers in the spring, according to some parents. Department officials began to release data on infected staffers a month after schools closed due to intense pressure from school communities and after downplaying the threat of the virus in schools.
Parents’ lack of trust in the city’s ability to be transparent, especially about COVID-19 cases, means more families will opt for fully remote learning in the fall which is still plagued with issues, according to Naomi Peña, a member of lower Manhattan’s Community Education Council 1 and mother of a public school student. “Parents are going to be terrified,” said Peña.”Even if it comes to the detriment of your own pocket, nobody is going to send their kids back because ultimately life is more valuable than a paycheck.”
If the department fails to be on infection rates the consequences will be deadly.”It’s only a matter of time before a case that starts with a student becomes an outbreak impacting students and their families,” said Steve Swieciki, a social studies teacher and UFT chapter leader at Herbert H Lehman High School in the Bronx.