By Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech
New York City public school teachers are ready to strike if they believe the city hasn’t done enough to keep the schools safe from COVID-19 when the new academic year starts Sept. 10.
“If a court deems that we are breaking the Taylor Law so be it. We will deal with the ramifications of it,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew told reporters during a Wednesday press conference. “We have promised the teachers and the parents of New York City that we would stand and fight if we felt a school was unsafe, and that is a promise we are going to keep.”
New York state’s Public Employees’ Fair Employment Act, commonly referred to as the Taylor Law, prohibits strikes by public employees. The UFT represents over 75,000 public school teachers and nearly 20,000 teacher’s aides.
Mulgrew described a scene of gloom and doom if the city reopens schools without taking necessary precautions to prevent a resurgence of the novel coronavirus sparked by reopening school buildings. “This goes beyond the four walls of school,” said Mulgrew, reminding New Yorkers of how easily children could spread the virus to the larger school community, and city, parents and grandparents.
Along with a handful doctors, Mulgrew was joined by mayoral hopefuls City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and City Comptroller Scott Stringer during the press conference who both called on the de Blasio administration for more transparency in order to not avoid past mistakes when schools closed during the peak of the pandemic in March.
The union’s biggest request is that all staff and students who test negative for coronavirus antibodies get a viral test 10 days before their school reopens. Those that test positive for the virus will attend school remotely. The UFT predicts that the city should anticipate testing approximately 750,000 children and adults before classes resume. According to recent DOE data, about 700,000 students are expected to return to school buildings for at least a few days a week this fall.
Nearly an hour into the press conference, the UFT released a three-page-long school safety checklist outlining standards on school nurses, ventilation, signage, dismissal protocol and supplies. The union has over 100 investigators which have already begun inspecting over 1,400 schools for compliance. The Department of Education claims that they have checked all school ventilation systems and Mayor de Blasio pledged that every school would be staffed with a school nurse by Sept. 10. a promise the city made and failed to keep in March.
Here is the UFT School Health and Safety Report pic.twitter.com/DTyblcLao5
— Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech (@AODNewz) August 19, 2020
The announcement comes as the city faces mounting pressure from unions, parents and teachers to delay the start of in-person classes in order to allow schools to better prepare.
Earlier this month, the UFT, which represents over 75,000 teachers, released a petition calling for the delay of reopening schools this fall calling Mayor Bill de Blasio’s reopening plan “unsafe.” The union, however, helped create the city create the reopening plan which it has now criticized. Mulgrew has also threatened to take the city to court if the union feels that schools are not safely reopening.
Department of Education spokesperson Miranda Barbot dismissed Mulgrew’s strike threat as “fear-mongering” in a statement.
“We spend hours a day, literally, talking to the UFT about policies and procedures and have delivered on a robust and practical testing protocol, a nurse in every building, and a 30-day supply of PPE for every school. We have the most comprehensive and rigorous plan in the country, coupled with record-low infection rates,” Barbot wrote. “When we see a full plan that is rooted in data and science, we’ll review it—until then, it seems like they just don’t want to say the quiet part out loud: they don’t want to open schools at all for students and families.”
Mayor de Blasio also responded to the teacher union’s press conference during a tour of New Bridges Elementary School in Crown Heights. “We have been working in good faith with the union for months and we are going to keep working with them regardless of what they say because we care more about kids and parents than these games,” de Blasio told reporters.
Should the city’s 1,800 public schools reopen next month, it will be the largest school system to host in-person classes in the nation