NYC teachers union calls for weekly covid testing for some students as first school closes with at least 16 positive staff cases

UFT President Michael Mulgrew
Teachers union President Michael Mulgrew called for more frequent coronavirus testing for students under the age of 12. (Chalkbeat)

New York City’s teachers union called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to ramp up the frequency of random coronavirus testing in schools for students under 12, just one day after the city’s first school closure of the year due to widespread virus transmission among staff.

The city should test 10% of students under age 12 every week rather than every other week, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said in a letter to the mayor. Students under 12 years old are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

Mulgrew said the union is not calling for more testing of students ages 12 and above because they are eligible for vaccination and the union is satisfied with vaccination rates among those students so far. (Nearly 70% of New Yorkers ages 12-17 have received a vaccine dose, de Blasio said Friday, though it’s likely some schools fall substantially below those rates.)

“The [United Federation of Teachers] made it clear over the summer that biweekly testing was insufficient given the delta variant and the strong possibility that many schools would struggle to meet the three-foot social distancing guidelines,” Mulgrew wrote. “The first week of school, including photos of students packed into crowded hallways and cafeterias, only strengthens the argument for more testing.”

The union’s call for more frequent testing comes at a critical moment for the mayor, who is trying to make the case that the nation’s largest school district can safely reopen for all of its nearly 1 million students after a school year dominated by virtual instruction. The current testing policy has attracted criticism for being less extensive than the protocol at the end of last school year, which required weekly testing of 20% of all students and staff.

Mulgrew’s demand for more testing also comes just after the city issued its first full-school shutdown over the weekend of P.S. 79, a District 75 school in Manhattan that serves students with more serious disabilities. All of the positive cases were among staff members, city officials said Friday, with 16 confirmed cases as of Sept. 16.

The cases were linked to staff orientation events, education department officials said, though they did not indicate whether the infected staff members were unvaccinated. Unlike last year, when as few as two virus cases could shut down a campus, schools will only shutter this year in the event of widespread transmission. There is no specific number of virus cases that triggers a school-wide closure this year.

But the union’s letter makes no mention of unvaccinated teachers, a notable omission given that a significant minority of educators represented by the union have yet to be vaccinated and the city’s first full-school shutdown appears to be the result of positive cases among staff, rather than students.

The city did not require unvaccinated staff or students to be tested before they returned to school buildings, though all unvaccinated staff are required to show proof of a negative coronavirus once a week, a more frequent testing regimen than unvaccinated students.

The union is part of a lawsuit challenging the city’s plan to require all school staff to receive at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27 or else be put on unpaid leave. In an interview, Mulgrew said the union believes the health department has the legal authority to issue a vaccine mandate, but the city should have created an exemption process for staff with medical issues or religious objections. 

Earlier this month, an arbitrator ruled that the city must offer non-classroom assignments to teachers who have valid medical or religious reasons to avoid the shots. But Mulgrew said the teachers union is still part of the lawsuit, which includes several other unions, and which could result in a judge blocking the vaccine mandate. (A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 22.)

“You have to have the exemption and accommodation process, but the City of New York tried to do it without it. We look at it as a power grab,” Mulgrew said. “If we don’t challenge what they’ve done now, they can say, five years from now there’s another [mandate], and they can say, ‘well we don’t have to do exemptions.’”

Since Sept. 13, when the city’s traditional district schools reopened to students, 325 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 (that figure also includes staff members at charter schools that are housed in city buildings); 487 students have also tested positive. 

Since district schools reopened, 367 classrooms have been shut down. In addition, there have been 266 partial classroom closures, in which unvaccinated people must quarantine but those who are vaccinated and not showing symptoms are allowed to continue learning in person. There are roughly 65,000 classrooms in city buildings, officials said.

The mayor has repeatedly said that the city’s schools can reopen safely at full capacity, and de Blasio has insisted that everyone return to school in person with some narrow exceptions for medically vulnerable students. Officials are requiring universal masking, three feet of distancing where possible, and promised two air purifiers in every room.

Critics contend that the safety rules don’t go far enough, especially with the more transmissible delta variant circulating, and that families should have a virtual option. De Blasio has countered that remote learning is a poor substitute for in-person instruction and that schools can operate safely.

“Last week we successfully and safely opened our schools to all New York City students for the first time in 18 months,” education department spokesperson Danille Filson said in a statement. “We will continue to base our health and safety protocols off the guidance of our medical experts and in the best interest of our school communities.”

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