We Should Wait to Reopen NYC Schools

By a MORE-UFT School Social Worker

As we inch closer to the green light for NYC middle schools to reopen tomorrow 2/25, we can sense the concern, fear, urgency, and pandemic fatigue as an upswell in educator spaces. The strategy the boss has used is to normalize schools being open for elementary and District 75 and now slide in middle school in without so much as a huff on the media stage. 

What’s missing is a full picture of what schools being open in NYC look like. Allow me to paint it: More than 70% of families with a heavier representation of Black and Asian families have opted to stay home. Many schools that are “open” have actually been closed more days in the school year than they have been open due to continuous closing based on contact tracing and positive test results. Families are often notified late at night or early in the morning that the school is closed, leaving them to make emergency child-care plans. Many students that attend school have never been tested through the 20% random testing program because students come to school on different days and, in many cases, testing only comes one day of the week, leaving the same groups of students tested repeatedly and others never tested. 

March is the one-year mark since educators pushed the DOE to shut down by threat of a sickout, and today the NYC DOH is reminding us to avoid public gatherings and wear KN95 face coverings. Outrageously enough, the NYC DOE has yet to put out a transparent list of schools that need ventilation upgrades and which if any school buildings are actually functioning on ventilation systems using MERV 13 filters. (Remember that those filters also need to be replaced regularly.) The current ventilation information accessible through the DOE mostly detail which rooms have windows that open and doesn’t address the fact that 57% of all NYC schools bathrooms had non-functional ventilation as of September 7th, 2020.

With what we know now, we should wait until at least September 2021, watching for COVID19 variants and other unknown factors, for a full school reopening with the following steps in place: this, of course, will require full funding for all schools:

  1. PPE
    1. 10 N95 masks per week for every student and staff member guaranteed; students masks must be sized correctly[1, 2]
    2. Provide goggles and face shields for all staff to be utilized and mandated especially during Instructional Lunch periods[3].
    3. Retrain all School Reopening Response teams (COVID TEAMS) in all schools immediately virtually and members must be excused to participate in these training in lieu of instruction for all. 
    4.  All co-located schools, specifically middle schools, must convene a Safety meeting immediately with other schools in the facility and review COVID procedures in the School Reopening plan. 
    5. All School Reopening plans must be shared with all parents of individual schools for transparency and to respect the Parent’s Bill of Rights[x].
  2. Every school (not building) must have a nurse; unless a school is spread across multiple buildings, each building must also have a nurse per school.
    1. Every school nurse should be assigned at least one contact tracer to coordinate with. 
    2. Train nurses and school staff on administering rapid tests to allow for increased testing supervised by Testing and Tracing Corps.
    3. Provide training to school nurses to administer COVID19 vaccines to students and families who desire and are eligible.
    4. Hire more nurses[x ], counselors and social workers before any more school safety agents[x]. Create a plan for removing SSAs entirely.  
  3. 420 contact tracers
    1. Train and mobilize administrative staff such as school aides and community liaisons to do contact tracing[x]
    2. The number 420 comes from the recommended number of contact tracers per capita and the DOE population size.
    3. Maintain the daily COVID19 cases map on the DOE website to reflect school closures and classroom closures more quickly for increased transparency and accuracy. Situation Room can utilize an online dashboard open to the public with COVID cases. 
    4. Create a telephone hotline for families and staff if a school is closed that is available in all 15 major languages. 
    5. Include all DOE employees regardless of if they live in municipalities outside the city or state on COVID19 reports. Many employees living outside the city or state were not contacted and traced after they were notified of positive cases in their schools. This data must be included in city reports of school COVID19 cases.
    6. Include all students and staff in data reporting positive COVID19 cases: positive cases found outside the schools testing program are not being included in the overall number of positive cases and has skewed data around the safety of schools
  4. Detailed schedule and complete funding for needed ventilation updating and maintenance. Plans needed from SCA for all buildings, for work to be done over the course of the next 5-10 years.
    1. Immediately publish the status of all schools that were slated to be repaired by October 1st, 2020 based on UFT 50 point checklist agreement on a centralized dashboard on the DOE website available to parents and staff. Should be user friendly in different languages.
    2. Disaggregated data of repairs based on district, borough and the repair contractors. 
    3. Prioritize schools within the highest rate of COVID communities for immediate repairs.
    4. HEPA filters in each classroom that does not have a working ventilation system[x] and plans to replace filters regularly
  5. Prioritization of 5-day-a-week in-person learning can not undermine the following:
    1. Room capacity caps as determined by UFT walkthroughs at start of year
    2. Cohorts should not be collapsed without respect for federal mandates such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and therefore students’ Individualized Education Plans, which were carefully considered in determining cohort composition for Least Restrictive Environments as well as the needs of English Language Learners. Student IEPs are based on student needs and pressure should not be applied to reduce services students are entitled to during this time.
    3. Transparency on revised building capacity with health safety protocols (6ft distancing) 
    4. Reporting daily in-person attendance on central dashboard
  6. Every student must have a social emotional component built into each school week.
    1. 5 central funded positions in each school. These positions would cover restorative justice coordinators, counselors and social workers[x]. Principals should not have any budgetary control over these positions. 
    2. PSAL sports for all. 
    3. Extra curricular activities for all. 
  7. End to all high stakes testing this year[x]
    1. All regents must be waived as a graduation requirement. Neither in-person or remote testing will ensure equal opportunity or ensure the least interrupted learning environment.
    2. NYSTILL and NYSLAT must be waived.
    3. Waive all teacher evaluations for the spring semester.
    4. NYS 3-8 exams should not be administered this spring semester.
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