As the entire NYC public school system enters its first full week of remote learning due to the increased spread of COVID-19, the head of the union representing public school teachers told parents he favors reopening schools in specific parts of the city where COVID-19 positivity rates are relatively low, reversing his position on a systemwide closure.
In a letter sent to members on Sunday, United Federation of Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew revised his stance after conceding that COVID-19 testing rates in schools have been comparatively lower than the rest of the city. The city's current COVID-19 positivity rate on a seven-day rolling average is 3.09%. Before shutting down, the citywide positive test rate for public schools was 0.23%.
"As the conversation now shifts to how to reopen our school buildings safely, we are going to ask the mayor to consider a regional approach," Mulgrew wrote to members. "We don't think the whole system has to go remote if large areas of the city have kept transmission rates low."
But his suggestion also mirrors one proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who suggested de Blasio consider closures on a school-by-school basis.
The news marks a significant reversal from Mulgrew, who for months pressured de Blasio to stick with closing schools if the citywide COVID-19 positive testing rate on a seven-day rolling average hits 3%. Last week, that threshold was passed, forcing schools across the five boroughs to shift completely to remote learning. De Blasio said that testing will play an even greater role once schools reopen.
Mulgrew's new position comes as many parents of in-person learners have expressed frustration with the decision to close schools, when the positive test rate systemwide was so much lower than the city's rate.
Schools reopened on September 29th, after being delayed twice by the city following the union's threats of a strike. Under the reopening plan, schools must have a 30-day supply of personal protective equipment, reduced classroom sizes with students who are socially distant, temperature checks, proper ventilation, and a nurse in every school.
In the letter, Mulgrew appeared to have distanced himself from the 3% benchmark as the trigger to close schools, insisting de Blasio had created such a trigger. Instead, Mulgrew revealed in his letter that he favored a strategy that would close schools in individual zones. The strategy is akin to Cuomo's designated hot zones for areas in New York City experiencing higher than average COVID-19 positivity rates, leading to restrictions that included closing schools.
Cuomo has since revised the strategy to one that imposes restrictions on a micro-cluster level. Cuomo -- whose emergency powers give him greater control over schools across the state -- has so far not overruled de Blasio in keeping schools closed.
A spokesperson for de Blasio declined to comment.