President Of NYC Teachers’ Union Stands Behind Controversial Two-Case COVID Closure Rule

The president of the New York City teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, said he’s still in favor of rules that shut down public schools for 10 days at a time when city health officials identify two unlinked coronavirus cases within a school building.

“We can’t just say because they’re an inconvenience we don’t want them,” Mulgrew said on the Brian Lehrer Show Thursday.

As of March 17th, 920 classrooms were closed, as were 200 school buildings — some for 24 hours, most for 10 days or more. While Mayor Bill de Blasio has touted the success of the city schools reopening, many have closed repeatedly throughout the year.

Many parents call the closures disruptive and illogical. Some have pointed to cases where separate schools within a single building have cases, making a link unlikely.

Danielle Tarantolo, parent of two young kids at Brooklyn School of Inquiry/PS686, which is co-located with two other schools, said the constant cascade of closures has been incredibly frustrating for her and her children. Her kids have only gone to school in-person a total of 19 days since last March.

Tarantolo said her school has suffered from a “1-2-3-4 punch.” The school, like the system as a whole, delayed its opening in early fall, then opened for one week before it had to close again because of zip code-specific shutdowns. That was followed by the closure of the entire school system due to rising COVID-19 cases in November, followed by multiple individual school closures because of the two-case rule.

“It’s so frustrating to see these closures happening with no basis,” she said. “More and more science is coming out that shows these closures are not necessary.”

Epidemiologists recently told Chalkbeat that the two-case closure rule is conservative and worth reviewing.

In general, schools appear not to pose a high risk of transmission. Sample testing of staff and students shows a positive case rate of 0.57 percent, far less than the citywide average of 6.74 percent. But it’s hard to compare the two because the education department’s weekly testing program focuses on individuals who have chosen to come to school and are likely to be asymptomatic, rather than the general population where people often get tested because they feel sick or have been exposed.

Some teachers and parents continue to support the two-case-closure policy. They attribute the low positivity rate in schools to the closure rule and other precautions. They say it’s not just teachers’ health they’re worried about, but teachers’ and students’ families as well. And with vaccinations rolling out, they said they might support a change soon — if the new variants don’t alter the broader health picture.

“It feels like we’re getting close to things getting a lot better, but we’re not there yet,” said Liat Olenick, a teacher in Brooklyn and member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators, or the MORE caucus within the union, which opposed a full reopening of the system last summer. (It called for a phased-in approach of in-person school for the most vulnerable students.)

“It’s too soon to relax rules about COVID cases in schools and safety,” Olenick said. She said she hopes more teachers can meet with students outdoors, either for classes or socializing, this spring.

Mulgrew emphasized school closures are a frustrating disruption for teachers, too. “They have prepared to teach in person and then they have to switch back into the remote setting,” he said. “None of this is fair and none of this is ideal. But … hopefully we’re finally coming through this thing.”

De Blasio has said repeatedly that officials are re-evaluating the school closure rule, but has not announced any changes.

In the interview with Lehrer, Mulgrew also touched on other hot button reopening issues, often citing the guidance of independent health experts who have been advising the union, although he didn’t say who those experts are.

Mulgrew said he’s aiming for a full reopening of the school system by the fall. “I want full-day five-[day] instruction in September,” he said.

Asked whether he would support reducing social distancing requirements from six feet to three feet in classrooms, Mulgrew said it’s too soon to know.

“We have a group of independent doctors we’ve been working with since basically April of last year,” he said. “So on the three-foot versus six-foot, we’re waiting for these experts to tell us and we’ll follow their guidelines.” He also did not say if he would support reducing the requirement this school year to allow more students to return to classrooms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently reviewing the six-foot guidance, and a new study found there was no significant difference in infection rates between six feet or three feet. To accommodate all students in the city’s school buildings, it’s likely the social distancing requirements would have to be reduced. De Blasio said Thursday that he would consider another opt-in period for in-person learning if the CDC eases its guidelines.

Mulgrew also said he does not know how many teachers have been vaccinated. He said the UFT itself has connected 34,000 staff members with vaccine appointments. But he said the union does not know how many educators secured their own appointments through state and city sites.

“I am a little upset that the city and state did not keep track of their numbers,” he said. “That would have been helpful since, you know, when you go to get vaccinated, you have to click on if you’re a teacher or you work in a school building.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said the “city’s box for eligibility does not distinguish between different school systems.”

When asked by a parent who called into the Brian Lehrer Show why the union hasn’t surveyed its members to see how many have received a COVID shot, Mulgrew said it’s a privacy issue.

Tarantolo said she’s frustrated by what she considers to be a rejection of the growing research around COVID safety in schools. “Every day that the kids get to go to school it’s like Christmas for them,” she said. But she said her children are ultimately only getting a “tiny fraction” of their education, and lots of disappointment.