New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday doubled down on reopening schools next month – a day after teachers threatened to strike over his COVID-19 testing plan.
De Blasio and schools chancellor Richard Carranza released a ‘Back to School pledge’ outlining the features of their reopening plan.
The city’s teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, had said on Wednesday that his reopening protocol was insufficient to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
New York City schools, which make up the largest school district in the U.S., are slated to open September 10 for a blend of in-person and remote learning.
A group of 31 city council members wrote to de Blasio and the Department of Education Wednesday to say there are still ‘far too many unanswered questions’ regarding reopening.
They wrote: ‘With less than a month until school is scheduled to start, there are still far too many unanswered questions around health and safety, programming, operations, and pedagogy.
‘With so much ambiguity around the City’s ability to re-open schools safely, a majority of the New York City Council is calling for the Mayor to pause and delay the re-opening of schools, which allows the DOE time to better plan, from both a safety and an academic perspective.’
The reopening plan stipulates that all schools will have a 30-day supply of personal protective equipment at all times and schools will close if the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests in the city is 3 per cent or more on a seven-day average.
‘We are going to make sure these schools are safe and ready. And if we don’t think they’re safe and ready, they won’t reopen,’ de Blasio said on Thursday.
‘We work for the parents and the kids of New York City and we owe it to them to get it right, and we will. So, everyone is working together to make sure the PPEs are in place, the signage, the cleaning, the disinfecting, you name it. That work going on literally every single day.
‘Some of it is more advanced and technological. Some of it’s really old school. Opening up windows. Some school classrooms have windows that were sealed shut. We’re opening them up because, what the doctors tell us is fresh air is actually one of the very best ways to fight the coronavirus.’
Carranza added: ‘I know how overwhelming this may feel, but I want to reiterate something that the mayor has said and I, also, have said: that if it’s not safe, we won’t reopen.’
Compared to de Blasio’s threshold of a 3 per cent COVID-19 infection rate for schools to shut down again, the city’s positive test rate on Thursday was 0.88 per cent.
New York City teachers on Wednesday threatened to strike or bring legal action unless the city government addresses specific safety demands like a more rigorous COVID-19 testing plan and protocols for isolating students who show symptoms of the virus.
The union has called on the mayor to address ventilation issues in school buildings and implement stricter procedures on bussing students, in addition to demands for increased testing students and staff.
‘The minute we feel that the mayor is trying to force people in to a situation that is unsafe… we go to court, we take a job action,’ said Michael Mulgrew, president of the union representing the city’s 133,000 teachers, adding that a ‘job action’ could include a strike.
The union did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the mayor’s pledge on Thursday.
‘Now it’s time to say, public servants, rise to the occasion and answer the call,’ de Blasio said of the teachers.
The mayor’s school reopening plan ‘encourages’ teachers to get tested for COVID-19 monthly and promises that the city’s testing sites will expedite results for city school staff.
If at least two COVID-19 cases are confirmed in different classrooms at a school, the mayor’s plan calls for the school to be closed for 14 days. If one or two linked cases are recorded in the same classroom, then only that classroom must close for 14 days.
‘Schools will communicate to all families and students at school once a case is laboratory confirmed,’ the NYC Department of Education website states.
On Tuesday, the University of Notre Dame and Michigan State University rolled back their plans for in-person classes, with Notre Dame pushing back classes by two weeks after reporting 80 cases on Monday and Michigan switching to all-remote for the semester.
Earlier this month, Chicago’s school district delayed a plan to allow students the option of attending class in pods of 15 pupils twice a week after the teachers union threatened to strike.
Instead, all of the district’s 350,000 students will take classes remotely until at least November 6.
Many US schools and universities got off to a faltering start in welcoming students back to campus and the classroom this week.
In several cases, spikes of positive COVID-19 tests administered to returning students and staff forced schools to delay or scupper plans for classroom instruction and limit students to remote learning programs.