Some public school teachers are demanding in-person learning shut down again as the COVID-19 positivity level in NYC has risen above 9% in recent days.
A faction of the United Federation of Teachers called the Solidarity Caucus, which sued the city last fall, wants schools to go entirely remote until the virus levels drop again and vaccinations are more widespread.
"We simply need to focus our attention on remote learning at least through the rest of the winter and through part of the spring," said Lydia Howrilka, a social studies teacher at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn who co-founded the caucus in 2014. The Solidarity Caucus has already collected more than 1,500 signatures in an online petition urging officials to close school buildings. The group has about 4,000 members, according to Howrilka. The UFT says its overall membership includes approximately 75,000 teachers and 19,000 classroom paraprofessionals.
Middle and high schools remain entirely remote already. Public schools closed for about two-and-a-half weeks in November and soon reopened for 3K, Pre-K, Kindergarten, elementary school, and students with disabilities in District 75 schools. Expanded testing mandates were put in place for students in at least first-grade or older, as well as staff.
Some parents have fiercely protested in favor of keeping schools open. Although the virus positivity rate in schools from December testing was at .68% from 100,000 tests taken between December 7th and 23rd, testing protocols, which the city describes as a "gold standard," have been scrutinized as inconsistent by some teachers.
But for Howrilka, the testing mandates aren't frequent enough, and she is concerned testing is not required for children in 3K, Pre-K, and Kindergarten classes.
"We do not want teachers to see themselves as sacrificial lambs," Howrilka said. "We don't want our UFT team members to feel like they are being forced to go into a building because they are not sick or because they don't have a family member who who is sick."
With students in elementary schools and District 75 schools returning from winter break on Monday, Howrilka fears a post-holiday surge is on the horizon as kids and teachers who may have gathered in large groups for the holidays could be unknowingly bringing the virus back to the classroom.
"We can't control what people do. But one thing that we can do is that we can take preventative measures, and that is closing schools, at least, for the winter," Howrilka said.
Already, 272 Department of Education buildings had been closed on the last day of school before winter break. As of December 31st, 494 classrooms were closed as well as 22 buildings under a 24-hour closure and 158 buildings under a 14-day closure. Twenty-five students and 115 staff had tested positive, for a total of 7,007 virus cases among students and staff since September 14th.
Another caucus within the union, the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE-UFT), also supports closing schools and going remote.
Under state guidelines, schools are supposed to close regionally at a 9% positivity rate. But because the city and state measure that rate differently, the state's rate is well below what the city has found.
NYC had a 9.08% positivity rate over a seven-day average, according to numbers de Blasio released Sunday. The state's calculations put NYC at a 6.24% positivity rate over a seven-day average.
City Hall says the city threshold for closures is determined by the state's numbers. Governor Andrew Cuomo's office did not immediately respond to questions.
A city education department spokesperson, Miranda Barbot, said in a statement: "We have the gold standard in safety measures including weekly testing and mandatory face coverings, and don’t hesitate to temporarily quarantine a classroom or building in order to keep schools safe."
"Elementary and District 75 schools will return for in person learning on Monday as we continue to closely monitor metrics across the city," Barbot said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio told NBC4 he thinks schools should stay open for the rest of the school year, but acknowledged the state decides.
The union leadership with the UFT is not advocating for any closures.
"As the medical experts predicted, there has been an increase in coronavirus infections during the holidays," a UFT spokesperson said in a statement. "Our experience so far has been that the actual infection rate in schools has been very small, including in hard-hit neighborhoods, but we will be monitoring results closely as in-school testing begins again Monday."
The union spokesperson added the rise in virus cases "underlines the urgency for the city and state to speed up distribution of the coronavirus vaccine."
Howrilka said she would be more supportive of reopening as late as April once more essential workers are vaccinated.
Teachers would be in phase 2 of the vaccination phases set by the state in an October plan, though when asked about later phases last week, a state health department spokesperson said the state remains focused on healthcare workers and nursing home residents and staff for the time being, which totals 2 million people in the state.