There are at least 16 staffers with the New York City Department of Education diagnosed with COVID-19, the president of the United Federation of Teachers union said on Thursday, as educators returned this week to classrooms to prepare to reopen schools September 21st.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said these were individual cases at 16 different school buildings, based on testing performed before teachers returned to school Tuesday. Since testing is not mandatory for the DOE staff, these results are coming from employees who underwent testing on their own.

"It's a test case; can the city live up to the agreement that we have all said need to be followed to keep safe?" Mulgrew said on PIX 11 on Thursday.

The testing of teachers, staff and students has been a critical issue in union negotiations when the UFT pressured Mayor Bill de Blasio to delay reopening schools in order to set up a testing strategy, to train teachers in remote instruction, and to better prepare schools. The city ultimately agreed to conduct random testing in schools of both students and staff, with 10-20% of each school community chosen for testing each month

As educators returned to New York City’s public schools this week, mounting complaints from teachers seem to indicate the DOE is relying on self-reporting of positive COVID-19 diagnoses among staff and teachers, and that there is no clear protocol on informing school communities of positive cases. The DOE did not immediately answer questions on Thursday on how many cases they could confirm, how school staff cases are reported to the city, and how schools will notify their staff.

At de Blasio's press briefing Thursday, the city's Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi said the city can be notified of DOE cases via "multiple information streams."

"If someone self-reports that's something that we'll take into our system," he said. "We have other ways of finding out about positive cases, positive test results, because all of those get reported to the Health Department as well, so we take those multiple information streams, and we move as quickly as possible based on that information to start with the investigations and the contact tracing after that."

At PS 186x in the Bronx, teacher Jo Marcellano received a terse email from her principal Wednesday night advising staff there had been a positive COVID-19 case among the school staff.

An email from PS 186x administrators informing staff of a COVID-19 diagnosis.

An email from PS 186x administrators informing staff of a COVID-19 diagnosis.

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An email from PS 186x administrators informing staff of a COVID-19 diagnosis.
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“There is a confirmed positive case at the main site. Please follow proper social distancing guidelines and universal precautions,” the email said, adding that “all DOE protocols are being followed. Further guidance will be coming as I receive more information.”

Teachers were not given the option to work remotely while the building was cleaned, said Marcellano, who teaches young students who are classified as emotionally disturbed.

She said the lack of communication led to anxiety -- “staff were panicking,” said Marcellano, describing a volley of email replies to the principal asking “I have an infant at home; I have a sick mother at home, I need to know if I was exposed.”

“None of the administrators responded with any information or even just to say, you know, ‘we're really sorry, we can't tell you that yet,’” she said.

At MS 88 in Park Slope, the DOE said on Wednesday the staff were “immediately” notified after they received a report of a teacher with a confirmed positive COVID-19 case.

But a letter from purportedly a group of MS 88 teachers posted online said neither the DOE or the school principal notified them first -- but rather the teacher with COVID-19 informed them at a staff meeting.

“We are relying on the honor system when we need to rely on data, science and testing,” the letter said. “What happened to us is a dress rehearsal for disaster for our school communities.”

A call to MS 88's principal was not immediately returned Thursday.

Councilman Mark Treyger, chair of the City Council’s Education Committee, said the DOE is already showing how unreliable their planned protocols are.

“So here we have now the first test of this protocol,” he said of the two cases confirmed by the DOE Wednesday. “The only thing I saw here was two teachers who did their due diligence, proactively got tested, and are asymptomatic. And then, to their credit, they contacted the principal,” he said.

The DOE’s promise to have a plan to coordinate contact tracing with health authorities by the first day of school is too late, Treyger said.

“Staff is already in the building. And the mayor promised to keep them safe,” he said. “The trust is already broken. It's completely shattered.”

Echoing the criticism, Mulgrew said if the DOE can’t enact a safer protocol in time, he would not support reopening schools on September 21st.

"We had dozens of confirmed cases in March where the city would not confirm them because of their bureaucratic process," he said. "And if the city is going to follow that, we're gonna probably not open our schools on the 21st.”

With Jessica Gould / WNYC