New York City will dedicate a team of contact tracers to investigate coronavirus cases in schools, officials recently announced.
The United Federation of Teachers has called for such a team — but union officials on Wednesday seemed to cast doubt on whether the city could follow through on its promise, as the union steadily elevates the alarm over school reopening plans. The union is pointing to a litany of other safety protocols officials want to see in place before the doors of the city’s roughly 1,800 schools swing open.
“There is a list of safety measures that need to be agreed upon, and then executed,” said Alison Gendar, a UFT spokesperson.
The skepticism is not entirely unfounded: the city’s test and trace program was derided as a “disaster,” by its own employees, according to the New York Times.
The union is calling for a more robust testing protocol, a nurse in every school, and guarantees that schools will have the protective gear they will need, according to a petition the union launched Tuesday night. More than 44,000 supporters signed in about a day.
“Mayor Bill de Blasio’s current plan for reopening school buildings does not meet the safety standards our children and school staff need,” the petition stated. “The UFT worked with the city to develop many of the safety standards included in the reopening proposal, but the mayor’s current plan falls short.”
A spokesperson for City Hall said the city will have a contract tracing team dedicated to investigating school cases, but did not reveal any other details, such as staffing levels. In a letter sent Tuesday to the state Board of Regents chancellor and health commissioner, the UFT and its state counterpart called for staffing levels recommended by “independent” health professionals.
The union wants to see rolling COVID-19 testing inside schools, with results available in 24 hours. That is a far quicker turnaround than what many are seeing in the city, where the median lag at some clinics is nine days from testing.
Expanded testing, along with prompt results, is a key piece of inching back to normalcy, said Angelique Corthals, an associate professor of forensic and biomedical science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She is helping lead the college’s COVID-19 task force.
Until then, she said, “You will not have a safe school environment.”
New York City is the only major school district in the country forging ahead with plans to reopen buildings this fall, and the de Blasio administration is hoping to maintain that status. City Hall promised to continue working to address teachers’ concerns.
“We are doing everything in our power to keep students and staff safe, including a dedicated test and trace team for schools,” said spokesperson Avery Cohen. “We will continue to work with the union as we implement plans for the fall.”
De Blasio last week said schools would remain closed if the coronavirus infection rate passed 3%. The positivity rate has hovered below 3% for weeks. The mayor and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza also laid out how schools would handle positive cases, in partnership with the health department and the city’s test and trace program. If two people who haven’t had contact with each other from a school community test positive, for example, the school would shutter for an investigation.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew has threatened to sue to keep teachers from returning if they feel unsafe. The United Federation of Teachers warnings that schools may remain closed have gotten louder in recent weeks but some educators on the ground are calling for more dramatic action.
Union officials launched their petition a few days after hundreds of teachers marched in Lower Manhattan, hoisting homemade black coffins, to protest the city’s school reopening plans. Some New York City teachers criticized the petition as a weak move, especially compared to Chicago, where threats of a strike likely contributed to city leaders on Wednesday pulling the plug on reopening schools.
In New York, state law prevents teachers from striking and spells out consequences. Teachers could lose two days of pay for every day they walk off the job, and the union could lose its ability to automatically collect dues from members’ paychecks.
Correction: This story initially said New York City officials launched a contact tracing team for schools this week. The team was launched last week.