Teachers are ramping up the pressure on Mayor Bill de Blasio to close down most of the city’s public schools, saying the schools threaten to become vectors that would make COVID-19 impossible to contain. They say the mayor should close most schools—while keeping a few open for especially vulnerable students.
On Saturday, Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, asked parents to call 311 to demand a shut down. “The mayor is recklessly putting the health of our students, their families and school staff in jeopardy by refusing to close public schools,” he said.
It was an escalation in rhetoric from just the day before when Mulgrew recommended a closure but said he and the mayor had agreed to “respectfully disagree.” Mulgrew is calling for the Department of Education to maintain services for especially vulnerable students. Legislators have proposed a “summer school model.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of public school teachers are planning to stay home on Monday. A faction of the UFT called MORE: The Movement of Rank and File Teachers held a conference call Saturday to organize what they’re calling a “sickout.” Organizers say 400 teachers were on the call.
“We’re in this moment where we’re all coming to grips with an unfathomable reality,” said MORE member Liat Olenick. “Nobody wants schools to close. Nobody wants to put staff in that situation. Nobody wants to put the families in that situation. But we’re in a crisis, it’s an emergency, and the mayor and the city and the governor should be thinking about what keeps the most people safe.”
Olenick, who said she’s at higher risk because of pre-existing health issues, stated concern for staff is part of what’s driving the strike. “There are teachers or lunchroom/cafeteria workers or custodians who fall into the category of being especially vulnerable to the virus,” she said. “It’s probably thousands of people.”
But she said the overriding worry is for collective health and safety. “Keeping people apart is key,” she explained, “and there’s no way in school buildings that are already overcrowded to do that and prevent the spread of the disease to students, their families, staff and their families.”
Teachers have said, despite promises, many schools still lack soap and other cleaning products. Some teachers reported crying during breaks and shouting matches with school leaders last week.
The NYC public school system serves 1.1 million students. Many private schools and Catholic schools have suspended classes, as have some charter school networks. Many of the country’s largest school districts are closing, including Los Angeles, which is the second biggest with 600,000 students.
But Mayor de Blasio has said keeping the schools open is the best way to keep students occupied and to ensure they have enough to eat. He also said it’s necessary to make sure parents—especially health and transit workers—can do their jobs.
On Friday, he pointed to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control which said short-term closures seemed ineffective, and, though closures of 8-20 weeks might be effective, handwashing and isolating those who test positive are more so.
Further, de Blasio said closing schools wouldn’t create a “pristine quarantine.” “Children would end up going all over their buildings, neighborhoods looking for things to do,” he argued.
The mayor added that he was worried that once the schools shut down they’d be closed until the fall or later. He said that education department officials are working on ways to accommodate teachers with high risk factors.
But attendance plummeted towards the end of last week, from 85 percent on Thursday to 68 percent on Friday. Teacher absences also increased.
On Saturday, Governor Andrew Cuomo signaled movement toward closing schools, saying the SEIU 1199, the union representing healthcare workers, was looking at ways to cover staff who need to stay home with their kids in the event of a systemwide shutdown.
Also on Saturday, the Department of Education announced another school, IS27 in Staten Island, would close after a student there tested positive for the virus. Officials said the student had not been symptomatic at school, cleaning was underway, and the school—along with others that closed Friday—was scheduled to reopen on Monday.