At Middle School 839 in Brooklyn, teachers say there aren’t enough custodial staff on hand to carry out the city’s recommended pandemic cleaning plan. The electrostatic sprayer for disinfecting surfaces is missing parts and doesn’t work, they allege, while classroom windows only open three inches, making ventilation an issue. And the school only has about two weeks worth of face masks instead of the 30-day supply they were promised, the teachers claim.
Because of this, MS 839 faculty—who are only permitted to work from home if they have specific underlying medical conditions—are urging parents to choose the “fully remote option” for their children. After all, at least 22 New York City public school teachers have already tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks, according to the union that represents them.
Classes in America’s largest city, and the former global epicenter of the coronavirus, are scheduled to begin Sept. 21. As early cases tick up and the big day approaches, teachers on the frontlines are starting to panic.
“I feel like we’re staring at an iceberg and screaming, ‘There’s an iceberg!’ and the mayor is saying, ‘There’s no iceberg,’” Frank Marino, a teacher at MS839, told The Daily Beast. “This is what we have been all summer saying would happen once people went into the buildings without mandatory rapid testing. What teachers are experiencing this week is a retraumatization of what we experienced in March, when we watched cases in the city spike while we were told to report to work.”
For its part, the city has touted an aggressive pandemic surveillance program. “Our top priority this fall is the health and safety of our students and staff—we will not compromise on this for any reason,” Nathaniel Steyer, deputy press secretary for the NYC Department of Education (DOE), told The Daily Beast. “Parents need to make the best decision for their families, and it is extremely disheartening and irresponsible to pressure parents into a deeply personal decision.”
“Every school was inspected by highly-qualified professional engineers, we are performing extensive repairs to ventilation systems across the city, and we are delivering 30-day supplies of PPE and cleaning materials,” he added. “Repairs and deliveries will continue to be made and no room or school will be used if it is not safe.”
The first positive COVID-19 result at a New York City school aiming to reopen was recorded at MS88, a middle school in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. Less than 24 hours later, city officials told the faculty to “report back to work in person immediately,” according to a group of teachers at the school who now say reopening the school is “unsafe, unjust and untenable.”
“What happened to us is a dress rehearsal for disaster for our school communities,” the teachers said in an open letter released Thursday.
One public school in the Bronx has already been ordered closed, after two teachers tested positive for COVID.
The Department of Education has promoted a free expedited testing program available to teachers across the five boroughs. However, testing is not mandatory, at least before Oct. 1, and the MS88 teachers say it’s up to staff to self-report positive results. Because of this, they say, there are almost certainly many more COVID-positive teachers in schools than the official numbers reflect.
Intermediate School 230 in Jackson Heights, Queens, reported a “potential” COVID case after a staffer tested positive on Thursday. A group of teachers at the school are now refusing to go back inside until the DOE can guarantee their safety, working outside instead, as The New York Post reported.
United Federation of Teachers (UFT) boss Michael Mulgrew says the city isn’t turning around staffers’ COVID tests quickly enough. If the testing scheme doesn’t improve, Mulgrew threatened to delay the planned Sept. 21 start of classes. But The MS 88 teachers, who are part of a progressive faction within the UFT, don’t think their representatives are doing enough. (A UFT spokesman declined to make Mulgrew available for an interview.)
“During the summer, we believed our union was taking an active stance to ensure our safety,” the letter continues. “But now we are back in the same buildings where COVID-19 ravaged our school community, reviewing safety documents that continue to be works-in-progress, often contradictory, and are fundamentally disconnected from reality.”
A public high school teacher in Manhattan told The Daily Beast that their building was clean and the maintenance staff conscientious about adhering to the city’s COVID protocols. The faculty is diligent about masking up, yet everyone is worried about what will happen when the kids come back.
“Are they going to adhere to the rules?” said the teacher, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely. “Are they going to wear their masks, are their parents going to take their temperatures every morning? Our students are a little older, so they kind of make that choice on their own. So yeah, that’s a concern.”
It will take some time before anyone knows whether or not opening NYC schools 10 days from now was a good idea, according to Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and an expert on U.S. pandemic readiness. And while early cases among teachers are a definite red flag—at least six teachers have died after contracting COVID-19 in states reopening schools—he also noted the very real potential for children to spread the disease.
“The problem is not so much children getting sick, but children being vectors and bringing it home to the community,” Redlener told The Daily Beast. “I have been skeptical about reopening with children actually in classrooms. But I'm also trying to deal with the fact that it’s been a devastating interruption in the educational trajectories of many children who cannot afford that interruption.”
Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director for the nonprofit New York State Alliance for Quality Education, pointed out that NYC public schools were recently hit with a billion-dollar budget decrease. On top of that, Gov. Andrew Cuomo—who warned of a COVID spike when schools reopen—has withheld a portion of the state education aid the city relies on, and suggested the possibility of a 20 percent overall reduction.
This is exactly the opposite of what should be happening in the midst of a pandemic, Ansari told The Daily Beast.
“There needs to be safe spaces for children, making sure they’re learning in the process, and we also need to make sure that remote learning is up to par,” said Ansari. “We don’t want to see, next year or two years down the line, people saying, ‘Well, these kids just can't cut it.’”
Freeman Klopott, a spokesman for the New York State Division of the Budget, said that while Albany did put some $300 million on hold, it only reflects “a fraction of 1%” of $75 billion in total NYC school funding.
The funds have been “temporarily” frozen as New York State attempts to offset a $62 billion budget gap, Klopott said, laying the blame squarely at the Trump administration’s feet for not having delivered appropriate federal assistance to Albany.
“In the absence of federal funding, any future aid withholdings will take school district need into consideration,” Klopott told The Daily Beast. “If the advocacy industrial complex really wanted to help, it would turn its attention to Washington and work with us to get the assistance New York’s children deserve.”
Frank Marino of MS 839 is frustrated by all the politicking, and believes the opinions of rank-and-file educators have largely gone ignored. This has led to an haphazard response in New York, with varying levels of preparedness—many lacking—at different schools, he argued.
“It’s incredibly infuriating,” said Marino. “All the city and state officials have denounced the lack of a federal response, while engaging in exactly the same thing.