A little under two weeks ago, United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew -- whose union represents some 75,000 teachers currently working in the school system -- appeared to be in lockstep with the city after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the reopening of schools would be postponed to September 21st.
“The Mayor is really engaged in this process, in this whole conversation,” said Mulgrew at a joint news conference with de Blasio on September 1st, “where we can say we have the most aggressive policies and the greatest safeguards of any school system in the United States.”
But in a nine-minute video to UFT members that was posted on YouTube on Friday afternoon, Mulgrew expressed frustration over a litany of issues that popped up during the first week of teachers returning to school for preparation. They ranged from a poorly-cleaned school building for D75 special education students, to not enough personal protective equipment, and slow turnaround on testing. He once again hinted at the possibility of preventing the city Department of Education from reopening public schools.
"We understand what we're responsible for," said Mulgrew, appearing to address the DOE. "But we also know what you're responsible for. And if you can't make that happen before the children come into schools, then we're not gonna let you open the schools."
It’s not the first time Mulgrew has threatened that the union would keep schools closed since announcing the UFT’s agreement with the city to delay school opening. At a City Council education committee on September 3rd, Mulgrew said if school buildings are not in the best of shape, they will order their lawyers to go to the courts and ask for a temporary restraining order to block reopening.
Mulgrew characterized the past week as the “worst” for teachers and pointed out instances where teachers refused to enter a school building over safety concerns, though did not offer specific examples. Among those schools was IS 230 in Jackson Heights, Queens, where pictures on social media showed teachers sitting at an outdoor basketball court conducting their work to demonstrate a lack of confidence in the safety of the school.
Mulgrew also noted that the DOE saw 22 COVID-19 cases among its staffers this week though the DOE has only confirmed 19 cases as of Friday, out of 15,000 tests taken by employees.
"You would think that with the challenge we are facing the city would've brought its A game this week. But they didn't," said Mulgrew.
Though school was pushed off until the third week of September, teachers were asked to return to their schools on September 8th. The city Department of Education spent months in assessing conditions at school buildings to determine whether they were safe to re-enter. The DOE also brought in School Ventilation Action Teams, composed of engineers and ventilation experts from the School Construction Authority, to test airflow within a classroom. While the DOE said 96% of classrooms were deemed safe to be occupied, at least four school buildings were deemed unsafe to reopen for September 21st.
In his message, Mulgrew said he feels the same emotions as some of the teachers have shared with him. “I’m sorry this came off as me having a therapy session with you, but I feel the anger and frustration that you are all feeling,” he said, urging UFT members to continue amplifying concerns on social media.
“Send those pictures; keep it out there, because the only people who are going to protect this school system are us,” said Mulgrew.
Avery Cohen, a spokesperson for de Blasio said the city is doing all it could to ensure the safe return of students and DOE staffers.
"We've worked to make testing as fast and convenient for school-based staff across the city and the results have paid off, with 97% of tests coming back within 48 hours," said Cohen. "We're committed to testing every last case of the virus, and will continue to work in lockstep with UFT to ensure we are doing everything in our power to make schools safe. Our students and teachers deserve nothing less."