The city’s Department of Education officials have promised plenty of transparency and abundant personal protective equipment for teachers returning to classrooms this week to prepare for schools reopening September 21st in the midst of a global pandemic.
But many educators say they’re feeling overwhelmed, unprepared and unsure how safe their school buildings are.
At K368C NYC Children’s Center in Weeksville, staff returned Tuesday to find dirty classrooms, no personal protective equipment like masks, dead roaches and water bugs in some rooms, and no soap in bathrooms and discolored water in the faucets, said a representative from the United Federation of Teachers union at a press conference held outside the school Wednesday. The DOE also did not complete a ventilation inspection, the UFT said.
Some teachers left the building Tuesday while awaiting for the DOE to deliver cleaning and mask supplies, including special education teacher Mark John, who said he sat outside in the parking lot for five to six hours waiting for the mask deliveries.
“Imagine walking into your workspace and not feeling comfortable or safe,” said John, who is also a union chapter leader, at the UFT press conference.
“Let's put the entire Department of Ed on notice. This is not business as usual from last year or in decades past. We're opening up the largest school system in the United States that was hit harder than any other school system in this country,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew at the press conference. “And people have to take their job seriously. People cannot ignore ...when teachers are sitting on a sidewalk in front of a school site, because they weren't given the right PPE, not responding for hours is unacceptable and disgusting.”
The DOE said that once they heard the UFT complaints, they “immediately” delivered PPE and cleaning supplies to the school, which is in a state-owned building. The ventilation inspection will be scheduled in coordination with the building owner, DOE Deputy Press Secretary Nathaniel Styer said.
“Our District 75 students and staff members deserve the best, and we are taking immediate action to address any health and safety concerns, including in State-run facilities where we provide education,” Styer said in an email. “We will continue to work in close partnership with schools and with labor to identify needs and quickly respond so that every school is ready for their first day of in-person instruction on the 21st.”
But the equipment availability is just one factor. The DOE confirmed two positive cases of COVID-19 among staff on Wednesday, and there are mounting complaints from teachers about classrooms with inadequate ventilation and noncompliance with mask policies.
One teacher is so wary of contracting COVID-19 she’s avoiding the subway and biking 20 miles each way between her Brooklyn home and her school in the South Bronx. But it’s at school that Mia Ibrahim said she’s the most nervous, with colleagues going maskless and windows that haven’t been open for ventilation. "I'm just tired,” Ibrahim said. “It's been two days of dodging maskless coworkers and I'm so tired."
Adequate airflow in school buildings remains an area of grave concern -- despite Mayor Bill de Blasio touting that third-party engineers have found 95 percent of classrooms "ready" for teaching, some educators remain unconvinced.
"There are no supply/exhaust fans and unit ventilators in most of our building's rooms, whereas some are not operable. However, our building is still open to staff," said one teacher at Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in Borough Park.
The DOE said no classroom that lacks "the means to bring fresh air inside, circulate it, and then ventilate the air outside" will be used for teaching purposes, though these types of rooms may still be used "by a single person, as they are not at risk of giving COVID-19 to themselves, until systems are repaired. If repairs are not made prior to the 21st, those rooms will not be used for instruction."
Other teachers are saying the UFT’s help isn’t sufficient for the challenges they’re facing.
Tameka Solomon, a teacher and unit coordinator for PS 352 in the Bronx, said the DOE’s ventilation reports are too technical and not useful for her colleagues to measure how safe their classrooms are. Even with the UFT’s involvement, she said, too much responsibility is falling on the teachers.
"We had a safety meeting with the UFT last week and it was all these technical terms about ventilation and what's on the roof and dampers and all of this language that I am not familiar with. And it's like, ‘why is that up to me as a chapter leader to make sure the dampers are working properly?’” Solomon said. “Aren't there people -- the DSF, Department of School Facilities and all these people that make all this money -- shouldn't they be the ones talking about this and visiting every school? This is not our work. We're here to teach. We're not going to figure out ventilation systems."
Another teacher, Jeremy Mellema who works at the High School for Environmental Studies in Manhattan, has refused to enter his school building this week and instead brought lawn chairs to work outside. “We feel like the union has not represented us and the DOE is using us as science experiments,” he said. “We have staff that have vulnerable family that they live with, that weren’t able to get medical exceptions. We feel that the safety checklists that the UFT and the DOE are using are not adequate at all.”
Solomon, the PS 352 unit coordinator, added, "This would not happen anywhere else. If you worked anywhere else, you're not expected to figure out if the vents are working. No other profession has to do what teachers are expected to do. You know, we have to be the caregivers. We have to be the social workers. We have to be everything. And it's not fair."
With Yasmeen Khan