Sarah Yorra & Derek Hafner, FDR High School teachers and MORE members
We are two MORE members who teach at FDR High School in Bensonhurst/Mapleton, a Covid hot spot in zip code 11204. With a small group of colleagues, we’ve been trying to organize for remote learning at our school since the summer, with middling results. It was really only after returning to our school building that we were able to assemble enough of our colleagues, and union leadership, against what was clearly an unsafe, and unnecessary, reopening. Our organizing focused on bringing our chapter together, learning about COVID data, circulating an Open Letter, and protesting to draw attention to our issue. We saw results in increased media coverage, increased testing in our neighborhood and school, and increased advocacy by our admin and UFT representatives. We would never claim that our efforts are responsible for the state and city closing the schools in the hot zones, but we do feel that our organizing contributed to the UFT paying attention and demanding remote learning in zip codes above 3%.
Trying to Bring Our Chapter Together
After MORE’s Organizing 101 workshop at the end of July, a group of five colleagues and a retired chapter leader from our school got together to discuss how we could organize against what was already clearly an unsafe and disorganized reopening plan by the DOE. Having not had a chapter meeting since 2019, we all agreed that our colleagues should have the opportunity to talk together. With the aid of the retired chapter leader’s school contacts, we invited our colleagues to a meeting to discuss the reopening. Even with a limited number of up-to-date contacts, twenty chapter members attended that first meeting. Together we agreed to draft a letter demanding certain safety protocols from the DOE before reopening, and come together the following week to discuss it. Finding enough colleagues to sign was a challenge while not being in the building and without the support of our chapter leader. After about a week, with sixteen signatures gathered, a colleague accidentally sent the letter out. We didn’t hear back. It was upon returning to school on September 8th that we had better luck organizing our chapter around the issue of being in a COVID Hot Zone.
Learning About the COVID Data
Before we reported for PD on 9/8, we had been looking at the COVID data on the Department of Health’s Recent COVID data website. We noticed a disturbing trend; based on the data from the 4 week average from August, our school’s zip code for Bensonhurst/Mapleton, 11204, had the highest positive test result rate in the city. When we reviewed this information with an MD, they pointed out another troubling metric; our zip code also had the second lowest test rate in the entire city and 11219 was third lowest. Long story short, we needed a LOT more testing in our zip codes right away.
When we returned to the building on 9/8, we began asking our colleagues who live in the neighborhood if they’d seen any evidence of increased testing and outreach from the Department of Health or Test & Trace. Our colleagues’ responses indicated that if it was happening, nobody in the neighborhood knew about it. Mask compliance in public was pretty low in our neighborhood within nearly all of its diverse cultural, ethnic, and linguistic groups, due to the city’s failure to do effective outreach, provide easy access, and educate the public about the elevated virus rate in the zip codes.
Circulating the Open Letter
We brought our zip code’s COVID data to our chapter leader, who agreed that the issue was important to all the caucuses in our chapter, and sent an email using our data and demands to the principal, superintendent, UFT District & Borough Representatives on 9/10. Inspired by the open letters we’d reviewed for our earlier process, and now with the support of our chapter leader, we turned the email into an Open Letter. Our Chapter Leader sent it to our full chapter on 9/12. We also used MORE’s analysis and review of the 9/1 agreement between the UFT and the DOE to demonstrate that our zip code was supposed to receive additional testing.
We distributed our Open Letter with support and encouragement from MORE colleagues in the District 20 organizing group. Our MORE D20 colleagues helped brainstorm the term COVID Hot Zone and suggested we make the Open Letter a petition. We eventually realized that keeping the Open Letter as a Google document would allow us to update the letter weekly as the new data was loaded to the city’s website, whereas a petition cannot be updated. Signing onto and distributing the District 20/21 COVID Hot Zones Open Letter became part of District 20’s Day of Action on September 14.
Our principal heard about the letter and agreed to meet with us. On September 15th, she sent the language and data we provided to the CSA, the “Situation Room,” and the Borough Safety office to amplify the issue. Our Chapter Leader connected us with our first media source and she followed up with our District Leader, who then escalated the data and our concerns to higher ups at UFT. On 9/21, we noticed that a New York City Health and Hospitals mobile testing site was assigned to Gravesend Park, approximately 1.5 blocks from our school building. Due to the UFT’s advocacy, our school and PS 164 in 11219 became the first in-school testing sites on September 25th.
We organized two public protests. The first was the 9/21 Community Safety March and protest, in which we connected with parents, students, and staff at UA Maker Academy who were protesting their school’s dangerous ventilation situation. We protested about our data and demand for more testing outside 65 Court Street and then met the Maker marchers at Borough Hall. Our event received coverage on several TV and print sources. We know this action would not have happened without support from MORE members, who connected us via What’s App with the UA Maker staff, and from the MORE’s media team, who brought several media sources to our event. Several remote and/or untenured FDR staff did a concurrent phone zap during this protest.
The second protest was at FDR itself on Friday, October 2nd. We’d achieved our initial demands for testing, but now the issue had moved well beyond our two zip codes. We drafted new demands, calling for remote learning from our homes, increased testing and transparency, and better outreach to our diverse community. This protest was attended by 20 current FDR staff, a few retired teachers, and community members who joined our efforts. We got helpful news coverage for this action and we felt gratified that we’d unified our chapter and demonstrated our concerns. On October 4th, the Mayor announced that he would close schools in the COVID Hot Zones until the positive test result rate decreased below 3%. As of October 6th, the latest release of daily testing information by DOH, NINE zip codes are above 3% positive test result rate.
Conclusions & Takeaways:
We found it more effective to organize protests as concerned educators and community members across zip codes and district lines and to invite our school’s chapter members to participate. Trying to organize an official chapter work action was not easy to do quickly, at least at a school of our size. Because COVID is a multi-district and multi-zip code issue that affects all stakeholders in NYC, we hope that MORE or other organizations can empower others around the city to monitor their area’s COVID data and organize in response. We wrote up a short guide for how to interpret the Recent Data page on the DOH COVID data website. It’s basic but hopefully it might be helpful for other educators, parents, and community members. We also would be happy to collaborate on and share demands.
While we are personally relieved that FDR High School and other Hot Zone schools are now learning remotely, we are still concerned about the safety of in-person learning city wide. Based on our experience in 11204, we believe the City lacks capacity to proactively organize the necessary testing and tracing for in-person learning to be safe. We do not trust the Mayor to pay attention to all zip codes in NYC because it took the UFT’s threats and embarrassment in the media before he acted. We believe we will see increased community spread through schools and further illness throughout the whole city because folks commute in and out of these nine zip codes everyday.
We believe the UFT needs to demand a total rewrite of the testing provision of the 9/1 Agreement if they want testing to be effective in keeping schools safe. The DOE’s current plan for schools could be described as: “Infect First, Test Later, Close Only After an Outbreak is Underway” which contravenes all public health guidance about PREVENTING spread.
The lack of transparency around testing data continues to be a major problem. The rolling 7 day average COVID testing data by zip code drives policy decisions, but it’s impossible to find in a comprehensible form. Every New Yorker needs to be able to see this metric for their zip code.
Additionally, we need transparency around exactly how many students and staff are being tested by the City through in-school testing. Some in NYC now claim that schools are safe because there are no cases, but very few educators have reported that in-school testing is happening in their buildings. DOE needs to make the date of each testing collection, number of students/staff tested, and percentage of the in-person students who have been tested at every school available. We do not believe there are no cases in schools that are open; we suspect there is virtually no testing of students in those schools.
Finally, we are just not having the scapegoating that is happening in South Brooklyn. It’s emotionally convenient for the majority to assume that the outbreak is only affecting the Orthodox and therefore, everyone is cool. This is totally illogical. NYC is not a series of hermetically sealed bubbles; we are an interdependent city. The grocery store worker in Borough Park who gets infected by non-masking customers commutes home to Sunset Park, where her asymptomatic children can infect their school’s staff and classmates whose parents work all over the city. Shamefully, many New Yorkers are shrugging off the current uptick as happening to “them,” and therefore, not a problem. The failure of the City to protect any specific group of New Yorkers should be a concern to all of us. The fact that anybody is dying in NYC of COVID now is a preventable tragedy.
We cannot recommend that you come see for yourself given our positive test result rates, but we can attest that Bensonhurst/Mapleton includes a diverse array of people who did not wear masks until very recently, had no idea that the local virus rate was elevated, have never been tested, or may not even believe that COVID is real. No community is a monolith. We have heard the same ridiculous misinformation and conspiracy theories from a few (non-Orthodox) colleagues at our school that match the most extreme, anti-mask, anti-lockdown voices in the Orthodox community. We need to stay focused on the City, which promised to reopen NYC safely and is totally failing.