NYC stopped confirming coronavirus cases at schools, but teachers headed to their campuses anyway

New York City teachers streamed onto their campuses Tuesday through Thursday for training on moving instruction entirely online during a citywide school shutdown. In some cases, they walked in without any official word on whether they might have been exposed to someone with the new coronavirus.

City health officials have stopped publicly confirming instances of COVID-19 among school communities, as cases have skyrocketed to more than 3,600 as of Thursday morning in New York City. 

But the principal of Brooklyn Technical let his teachers know on Monday afternoon that at least one person from the school community self-reported testing positive for the disease. Still, the staff at the country’s largest brick-and-mortar high school had to report for duty as they spent three days training to transition to remote learning. 

Now some teachers at Brooklyn Tech are wondering why the city and education department leaders did not close their building. In the absence of any follow-up from health department officials, teachers are taking it upon themselves to inform colleagues when they come down with symptoms, leaving them with terrifying questions about the true extent of infections among the staff of almost 300.

“I feel like the DOE really let us down,” said Katie Moylan, who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. History, Advanced Placement macroeconomics, and world history at the school. “We’ve been left out to dry.”

A spokesperson for the education department said that school buildings were being “deep cleaned” every day and defended the decision to continue to ask teachers to show up in person for training. 

“Our teachers are best suited for success in a remote learning model by first participating in in-person training and meetings while practicing social distancing,” spokesperson Katie O’Hanlon wrote in an email. 

New York City closed its school buildings on Monday through at least April 20. But the shutdown of the country’s largest school system could stretch on for even longer as cases of the new coronavirus mount. Next week, the city’s 1 million public school students and some 75,000 teachers are expected to move to online learning.

At Brooklyn Tech, teachers said many of their colleagues chose to stay at home and train remotely. In most cases, they were forced to use their sick days — despite the fact that they were still working. The education department said teachers won’t see their sick time docked “if they are staying home under a doctor or health department directive,” due to COVID-19. 

That may be hard to prove. 

Moylan, for one, said she spent more than five hours waiting for a telemedicine appointment on Wednesday after waking up with a low-grade fever and cough — and still had yet to speak with a medical professional. She did not report to the Tech building this week. 

“I’m hoping this is allergies. But since they didn’t identify anyone, I don’t necessarily know whether I’ve been exposed,” she said. “Since I don’t know, and since the DOE is not taking the steps to close the school, all I’m left with is: I’ve got a cough, and I don’t want to hurt my colleagues.” 

Before the system-wide shutdown, the education department would tweet about individual schools with suspected or confirmed cases to the account’s more than 200,000 followers. Per state rules, schools with confirmed cases were forced to close down for at least 24 hours so they could be disinfected, and the health department could conduct an investigation. 

But the meteoric spread of the disease has made that kind of follow-up impossible, Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference Thursday evening. 

“We’ve entered such a different realm here that we simply can’t do what we used to do a week or two ago,” de Blasio said. “The reality of updating you has changed.”

On Tuesday morning, the Tech principal sent a note to teachers that said “a disinfection of the school building has been completed.”  But teachers are skeptical that the campus, which enrolls 6,000 students, could have been sufficiently cleaned. The school’s auditorium is one of the largest in New York City. The number of doorknobs, desks, handrails, and other surfaces that would need to be scrubbed is daunting, educators said. 

“There is so much to clean and disinfect,” said Sujay Sood, who teaches Advanced Placement Language and Composition at Tech and has a PhD in English.  

Sood said the training that teachers have been asked to complete involves webinars and could easily be done online, eliminating the need for them potentially to expose themselves to the virus by traveling to campus or being inside the building together.

“We don’t understand why teachers are being asked to commute from the five boroughs,” he said. “It makes no sense. It’s callous disregard for the wellbeing of teachers.” 

Alex Zimmerman contributed.