UFT balks at de Blasio’s suggestion that school buildings can remain open amid possible NYC lockdown

UFT President Michael Mulgrew
The teachers union cast doubt on the mayor’s approach to coronavirus shutdown. Above, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

Mayor Bill de Blasio warned on Tuesday that New York City may need a stricter set of restrictions to fight a surge of coronavirus cases shortly after Christmas. He called for an important exception: school buildings.

“Right now we’re seeing extraordinary success in keeping our schools safe,” the mayor said. “I want to keep them open.”

The teachers union — which supported the mayor’s move last week to reopen roughly 850 campuses serving elementary school students and those with the most significant disabilities — cast doubt on that approach.

“If the coronavirus infection rate rises to the point that a citywide ‘shelter in place’ is necessary, keeping school buildings open would be irresponsible,” Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said in a statement. 

The critical reaction could foreshadow a contentious debate about when it’s appropriate to shut down school buildings and represents a shift in tone from Mulgrew. In recent months, he has been generally supportive of City Hall’s approach to reopening the nation’s largest school district.

For now, the back-and-forth is largely symbolic. De Blasio has hinted that the city may need broader shutdowns, similar to those instituted last spring, though he has not put forward a specific plan. The final authority to make decisions about closing schools or other aspects of the city rests with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The state’s current threshold for shutting down school buildings across New York City is 9% positivity rate over seven days, though Cuomo has not commented on whether he will stick to that. Monday’s positivity rate over one week was 4%, according to state data.

If New York City schools shut down their buildings in the near future, it would affect about 20% of students at most, or roughly 190,000.  The vast majority of children selected fully remote learning, and middle and high school students will remain virtual at least until January.

De Blasio and his health advisors have made the case that health precautions in schools — including masks, social distancing, and weekly testing — have made schools incredibly safe, with little evidence that they are contributing to an uptick in cases.

“Schools are not increasing the rate of transmission,” Dr. Jay Varma, a mayoral health advisor, told reporters when asked about stricter lockdowns. “People’s risk of getting infected, if you are a member of the school community, is either similar to, or in some situations, much less than it is for anybody else in the community.”

A spokesperson for the teachers union did not immediately offer a more detailed explanation about why they believe keeping school buildings open would be risky. 

The exact threshold by which schools should close has been hotly debated and turns partly on how much risk policy makers are willing to accept given that there is not a clear-cut scientific answer

The city has other factors to consider, including whether freezing temperatures could make it more difficult to keep windows open as a primary source of ventilation in some classrooms. (The education department has said it has purchased 60,000 air purifiers, which should enable classrooms to keep their windows closed, education department officials said.) Educators have also raised questions about the city’s process for catching cases and informing communities, claiming it has been slow to inform schools of coronavirus infections in some cases.

Complicating matters, the mayor pushed to shut down the city’s school buildings citywide last month after the city’s virus positivity rate crossed 3% over a seven-day average, making it more difficult for him to argue that school building shutdowns aren’t needed even as coronavirus cases remain above that level.

Asked about the union’s comments, representatives of de Blasio and the city’s education department did not immediately respond.

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