Open Letter: We are teachers from the school with the first positive COVID-19 test of the 2020-21 school year. The city has failed us and, in turn, the public. What happened to us is a dress rehearsal for disaster for our school communities.
Our principal and leadership team are facing an impossible task, and have sought to put the health of safety of students and staff first throughout this entire pandemic, but the inaction and incompetence from the city and state are making it increasingly difficult to do so.
As teachers, we encourage our students to raise their voices. Yet too often, we fail to speak up for ourselves. Policies on school reopening have been created from the safety of remote settings. But we are here to report the reality of the city’s reopening plan. We can no longer stay silent about conditions that we feel are unsafe, unjust and untenable.
Timeline of events at MS 88
At 3:30 am on September 7th DOE teachers received an email from the COO “encouraging all staff to get tested for COVID-19 before their first day returning to DOE buildings.” The first day of school was September 8th. This followed a summer of conflicting directions, with the UFT publicly demanding mandatory testing just two weeks prior. Despite the lack of clear guidelines, many staff members took it upon themselves to get tested before coming into the building.
We reported to school on Tuesday, September 8th to plan for the school year. Staff was asked to work remotely on Wednesday. Wednesday afternoon, at 1:30pm, we received a staff-wide email informing us that a staff member who had reported to work the day prior had tested positive for asymptomatic COVID-19. A DOE spokesman reported to Gothamist that we were alerted immediately after the results were reported: this is not true.
In a meeting later that day, the teacher who tested positive chose to report their case to the entire staff. From this voluntary disclosure, other staff members were able to identify who was at-risk from close contact. Today at 6:30 am — less than 24 hours after learning we had a positive case — we received an email stating that the investigation was concluded, the building is safe, and we should report back to work in person immediately. It quickly became evident that despite the assurance that rigorous contact tracing was completed, we know this to be false. It has now been more than 36 hours since our coworker reported her positive test result, and at least 2 of the teachers who were in close contact with her have still received no communication from contact tracers or city officials. Staff are still in the process of self-reporting contact with the individual who has tested positive, and have taken it upon themselves to quarantine, despite lack of guidance from the city.
Implementation of school based protocols does not match messaging and policy
Despite early assurances by the Mayor, “recommended” testing of teachers has not been sufficient. DOE spokeswoman Miranda Barbot stated that “School staff have access to free, expedited testing and we’ve encouraged all staff to get tested before they return to buildings while we continue to navigate the realities of a pandemic” Yet, in practice, multiple staff members went to get tested at NY Health and Hospital testing sites, many of which were unaware of expedited testing for DOE employees. Some staff members were told it meant you got to skip the line; others were told that the sites simply were not designated for DOE employees. It has been left up to the discretion of staff to get tested and ultimately to report positive results to school principals, meaning that there are probably many COVID-positive teachers in our school sites.
During the summer, we believed our union was taking an active stance to ensure our safety. But now we are back in the same buildings where COVID-19 ravaged our school community, reviewing safety documents that continue to be works-in-progress, often contradictory, and are fundamentally disconnected from reality.
To enter a school building, staff are asked to present proof of a daily health screening and have a temperature screen. We are relying on the honor system when we need to rely on data, science and testing. We don’t need empty reassurances or memos from political leaders saying we WILL be safe. We need truth and transparency to ensure that we ARE safe today.
Beyond our own personal safety and that of our family and loved ones, our thoughts immediately turned to our students returning to the building on September 21st. How can they safely return to the building without mandated testing? Will student cases result in the same delayed triggers in response that have occurred with our staff?
Return to spring trauma
This new year has already evoked memories of last spring, when we had numerous cases among staff, tried to support our students through the loss of parents, grandparents and extended family, and had a colleague in the hospital, fighting for his life for 88 days.
As we continue to process the trauma of our own loss, we are doing everything in our power to sustain hope and resilience for our students. We are grateful to receive much-needed trauma training from the DOE, but this learning rings hollow in the context of flawed decision making that prioritizes politics over preparedness, a context that brings us back to the chaos of March, when educator calls for school closures were dismissed by our city leaders. As we plan to support our students in reflecting on and moving through their own grief, it is clear that the current plan for hybrid learning will further traumatize them by failing to guarantee the safety and consistency that all children need to learn.
We want to return to our classrooms and to deliver live instruction to students. This can’t happen without the proper infrastructure, logistical planning, safety measures, and funding. We know that reopening schools under current DOE protocols and practices (or the lack thereof) will once again set up our most vulnerable communities to experience grief and loss. The majority of our students at M.S. 88 live in neighborhoods that have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19, and have followed protocols to protect their loved ones from future devastation. We do not want to see our kids battle a resurgence which will impact their communities most.
As a community working through the ramifications of a first positive case, here is what our school community needs for a safe reopening:
- Communication: We need transparent, direct lines of communication between the DOE, Test & Trace Corps and school staff. We believe that self-reporting is not a reliable or expedient way of notifying school communities of positive cases. This communication also removes the burden from individuals who test positive and the administrators who are working around the clock to safely reopen schools during a pandemic. Much of the anxiety we have experienced in the last 48 hours are directly linked to simply not knowing what was happening or how to safely move forward.
- Protocols and Protections for Positive Cases: We need clear protocols and protections in place for individuals who have been in contact with staff who test positive, and we believe these should be publicly posted by the DOE and test & trace staff. These protocols also need to extend beyond staff members who were in direct contact. For example, many of our family members are now currently in quarantine, given that many of us have been in contact with the staff member who tested positive. We, and our families, should not lose pay or sick days for working remotely, given that the DOE has not followed through on all safety measures.
- Mandated and Rapid Testing: We believe that mandated and rapid testing for all individuals entering school buildings is critical to protecting our staff, students and communities safe from spread. Since learning about our first positive case, we learned that not all staff had been tested, or, that not all staff had received their test results prior to returning to school on September 8. Furthermore, despite statements from the city, many of our staff learned that many Health & Hospital sites were unaware and unable to provide expedited testing for DOE employees. Health & Hospital sites must be aware of all protocols, alongside all DOE staff.
We also support all of the demands outlined in the Slow Down to Save Lives letter from a coalition of NYC-based public school students, parents, teachers, school leaders, advocates, and elected officials who are demanding Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, UFT President Mulgrew, and Chancellor Carranza delay reopening school buildings, fully fund our schools, and invest in a safer, more equitable plan for NYC students that includes equitable remote learning, an expansion of REC centers and low-risk alternatives like outdoor learning.
What happened to us is a dress rehearsal for disaster for our school communities. If there is one thing we’ve learned from 7 months of COVID-19, it’s that the people who have been developing school reopening policies are far removed from those who are actually implementing those policies. It’s time that the DOE leadership center the voices of those working on the ground to reopen schools, and most importantly, those who are most harmed by existing inequities in our communities.