A letter to Mr. Mulgrew by Rachel Piven

August 1st

Dear Mr. Mulgrew,

I read the DOE’s 32 page “plan” this morning. As I’m sure you know, it’s abysmal and puts NYC students and staff at risk. A few points which really must be addressed:

1. Does Mr. Carranza know that middle school and high school students can’t remain in single cohort classrooms because they don’t all take the same classes? There is no way for cohorts not to mix.

2. Given #1, there is no way for a teacher and cohort to isolate if someone is suspected or confirmed to have COVID—that teacher would be needed to teach multiple other classes to other cohorts who are in the building. There aren’t enough adults to monitor students in class if the teacher is awaiting test results or becomes ill. 

3. Given that teachers will be exposed to multiple cohorts, any exposure for that teacher means that multiple cohorts will need to isolate and be tested; it’s impossible to close one classroom.

4. How is the teacher or staff member in the room supposed to remain safe when students take masks off to eat?

5. Has Mr. Carranza ever met students? They WILL put fingers under their masks; they WILL take masks off to sneeze or even just to breathe; they WILL tease each other or bully each other—or staff—by removing masks and breathing, coughing, and even spitting.

6. What happens during scanning into the building? Our building, the Theodore Roosevelt Campus, holds more than 3,000 students. Even if we divide into thirds, one thousand students will be entering each day. Even if we stagger school entry times so that only a few hundred students are entering at a time, it is impossible for those students to maintain 6’ social distancing, with full masks, and go through scanning…and certainly not in a reasonable amount of time.

7. The plan continues to rely on open windows for ventilation, without regard for temperature. That is unreasonable. it is also inadequate, as per a study released yesterday by the University of Minnesota. 

8. No information about the toxicity of the chemicals in the electrostatic sprayers has been provided. That could be a very serious health risk.

9. The Janitorial Union has said that the deep cleaning is impossible to complete without much more money and many more staff. If you are unaware of the inadequacy of cleaning on a regular basis, please be advised that what we are being told will happen is humanly impossible for our janitorial staff.

10. The complete focus on safety will completely preclude effective instruction. We still have a month to focus on improving distance learning for our students. We need PD. We need time to plan. It is impossible to teach well when we never know from one day to the next where we’ll be, and it is impossible to continuously pivot between open and closed schools as people become ill. The students will suffer both emotionally and academically far more than if we simply commit to teaching remotely and put all energy and training into doing that as well as humanly possible.

More and more teachers are talking about a strike. I sincerely hope it won’t come to that, and we need our Union to stand firm on concrete, practical, enforceable policies to keep us safe and to serve our students in the best way possible. 

Rachel Piven

Sent July 23

I believe that the City’s and the State’s plans to partially reopen school are both dangerous to staff and student safety and cause significant issues of inequity to both staffs and students.

I remain dedicated to the educational well being of my students and will continue to provide them with the highest possible level of instruction and support, as all teachers did between March 16 and June 26.

I believe that school buildings should NOT be reopened until the City and surrounding counties where teachers reside have shown no new case of COVID-19 for 14 days and/or until every teacher and staff member is permitted, as are students, to request a medical accommodation to work from home for any reason. Further, when any real plan to safely reopen is put forward, the DOE and Union must fully and precisely answer all questions about schedules, teacher obligations and duties, budgets, available PPE and supplies, staffing, etc., providing specific details, so that staff (and administrations) are able to make fully informed decisions about what is best for themselves, their families, and their students and schools.

Reasoning and Evidence:
As you know the last day that we all met with our students in person was March 13th.On March 15th Mayor de Blasio announced that school buildings would close and explained that “We had to, in the last 24 hours, get to the point where we were certain … that we needed to take these very radical steps right now,”

On March 13th the average number of new cases per day of Covid-19 in NYC for the previous 7 days was 13.
Thirteen new cases per day was enough to trigger the closing of the second largest school district in the United States because it was obvious that having over 1 million students gather each day in enclosed spaces with well over 100,000 school personnel would be like kindling for the pandemic flame.

In the seven days leading up to the Mayor’s announcement last week that NYC schools would reopen in September–a misnomer because schools were open: only the buildings were closed– NYC had an average of 292 new cases daily and there have been an average of over 300 cases per day in the week since he made his announcement. The NYC DOE expects staff and students to travel to and spend their days in school buildings when there are more than 20 times as many new cases per day as we had when we closed in March.

Attempting to label this “plan” a “partial” reopening is another misnomer, much like saying that someone is “a little pregnant”. Teachers and students may be on staggered weekly schedules, but all teachers who are in the buildings will see all students who are not fully remote, and all teachers and all students will be moving around the city each week, so for all intents and purposes, school buildings are open.

Research that has been released recently has demonstrated that while students younger than 10 do not, as far as we know, transmit COVID-19 frequently, they are susceptible to it and that students between 11-19–the age of all middle and high school students–transmit the illness at essentially the same rate as adults. (Mandavilli, Apoorva. “Older Children Spread the Coronavirus Just as Much as Adults, Large Study Finds”. 19 July, 2020, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/18/health/ coronavirus-children-schools.html viewed 19 July, 2020, citing “Dispatch: Contact Tracing during Coronavirus Disease Outbreak, South Korea, 2020”. CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Protection “Emerging Infectious Diseases”: Volume 26, Number 10 (October 2020) https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/26/10/20-1315_article viewed 19 July, 2020.)
There is copious evidence from daycare centers that even young children are susceptible to COVID-19, and while their rates of illness and transmission may be lower than that of older teens and adults, it is as yet unknown whether their futures will be affected and the rate of fatality is not zero. (See, for example, “Spells, Alta and Jones, Kay. “Texas coronavirus cases top 1,300 from child care facilities alone”. CNN Health. https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/06/health/texas-coronavirus- cases-child-care-facilities/index.html. Viewed 19 July, 2020. Also see Fox8 Digital Desk. “COVID-19 cluster reported at Guilford County child care center. https://myfox8.com/ news/coronavirus/covid-19-cluster-reported-at-guilford-county-child-care-center/. Viewed 19 July, 2020. Also see, in the State of New York, Doran, Elizabeth. “At least 16 sick after coronavirus exposure at DeWitt in-home day care: ‘Take this seriously … stay home if sick at all’”. Syracuse.com. 9 July 2020. Updated 13 July, 2020. https://www.syracuse.com/coronavirus/2020/07/at-least-16-sick-after-coronavirus-exposure-at-dewitt-in-home-day-care-take-this-seriously-stay-home-if-sick-at-all.html. Viewed 19 July, 2020.)

Mayor De Blasio, to help working parents, has assured us that 100,000 day-care spots will be available for NYC students when they are not in school, negating any potential safety that staggered schedules might provide. (Wamsley, Laurel. What To Do About Part-Time School? NYC Announces Free Child Care For 100,000 Students”. NPR WNYC. 16 July 2020. https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live- updates/2020/07/16/892043766/what-to-do-about-part-time-school-nyc-announces-free-child-care-for-100-000-stud. Viewed 19 July 2020.)

In short, both NYC students and staff in school buildings are at risk. According to the CDC, they–we–are at “highest risk” and will transmit that risk to family members. (“Considerations for schools.” CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated 10 May 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/ coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/schools.html. Viewed 19 July 2020.)
This risk is severely exacerbated by dangerous City and State plans for reopening.

On July 13, 2020, Governor Cuomo announced his plan for reopening schools. (INTERIM GUIDANCE FOR IN-PERSON INSTRUCTION AT PRE-K TO GRADE 12 SCHOOLS DURING THE COVID-19 PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY. New York State Department of Health. 13 July 2020. https://www.governor.ny.gov/sites/governor.ny.gov/files/atoms/files/Pre-K_to_Grade_12_Schools_MasterGuidence.pdf. Viewed 19 July 2020.) This document “recommends” that face coverings be used in the building but “requires” such use only when “social distancing can not be maintained”. It also requires that schools “should allow students to remove their face covering during meals, instruction, and for short breaks so long as they maintain appropriate social distance”. (2) It defines “Specifically, appropriate social distancing means six feet of space in all directions between individuals or use of appropriate physical barriers”. (2) In other words, social distancing is not required so long as people are wearing face covers, and also that face covers will not be worn consistently.

The document “All Principals Meeting School Building Re-Opening Briefing” dated July 2, 2020 includes additional threatening data and plans. For example, the (poorly designed to elicit specific responses) NYCDOE “anonymous survey” responses indicated that only 48% of students in grades 6-12 are very or mostly comfortable wearing a mask to school every day. Given that 52% of students are not, and given that the percentage of students who are “mostly” comfortable indicates that their comfort is less than absolute, the probability that a majority of middle school and high school students will not be comfortable and will actively resist wearing masks all day is extremely high. (To be fair, no survey is required to make this point to anyone who has ever spent time with children or teenagers.) In fact, on March 15th Mayor de Blasio was quoted in the New York Times stating that “We’re not going to convince teenagers not to gather” in reference to the challenges we would face in telling students to socially distance. We agree with the Mayor and we believe they are less likely to be willing “not to gather’ after what will have been 5 months apart.

The fact that students will not keep masks on is particularly relevant when the page titled “Promoting Behaviors that Reduce Spread” indicates that a six foot physical distance is only “strongly recommended”. 

Combine the guidance from Governor Cuomo’s plan indicating that students will remove masks to eat and have breaks without their masks with the suggestion that we “consider holding lunch in classrooms” and that a six foot social distance is “recommended”. This means that not only will teachers and other students who have similar transmission rates to adults be exposed to students not wearing masks during instruction, but also during meal times in their classrooms. {Which also raises questions of contractual duty free prep, bathroom breaks, and a safe place to eat.}Any contagion will be brought home daily to our families and, given that .  teachers will be seeing all cohorts over the course of a week, creating cross-contagion within the school and potentially across the City.  

The risk to both students and staff of being in the buildings is clear on its face. But there’s much more.

Concerns for student safety

  • Safety, generally
    • School is being reopened at a time when the current rate of infection remains more than 20 times higher in NYC than when schools were closed.
    • The NYS plan allows schools to remain open until 9% of people tested are positive–that number is extremely high (in NYC alone, it’s close to a million people)
    • Percentages of positive results are a poor indicator of risk:
      • Mandatory testing of healthy people, such as medical personnel, skews the numbers
      • Access to testing is a tremendous equity issue affected by factors including income, immigration status, employment, etc. 
  • Safety at my school
    • Research is showing that black and brown students are at significantly greater risk of both contagion and poor outcomes: my school population is 99.9% black and brown students at high risk
    • Students must travel to and from school on public transportation, increasing risk of contagion
    • Entry and exit from school are through common areas and stairwells shared with five other schools–cross-contaminating all, increasing risk of contagion
    • It will be nearly impossible to enforce mask-wearing protocols, increasing risk of contagion
    • It will be nearly impossible to enforce social distancing protocols, increasing risk of contagion
    • It will be nearly impossible to enforce rules against sharing supplies, food, etc., increasing risk of contagion
    • During meal time, students will not be wearing masks and will be within 6 feet of one another in a closed space, increasing risk of contagion
      • The DOE has said that meals will be served in socially distanced classroom spaces – however, they do not have any plan for who will supervise the students during meal times because the teachers have a contractual duty-free break time and cannot teach classes all day AND then stay in classrooms to supervise lunch.  Some schools may have enough staff to rotate out – we do not have enough staff at my school for such a rotation.
    • Ventilation is only through open windows, exposing students to the elements (cold, rain, etc.)
    • Safety protocols and fears of the virus in the room, particularly in the event of predictable student behaviors such as taking the mask down to sneeze or teasing a fellow student, may exacerbate pandemic trauma.
    • Most classes have one class-set of books to be shared, risking cross-contamination either within the classroom or across classrooms as texts are moved between classrooms
    • Math and science classes share equipment and calculators, risking cross contamination either within the classroom or across classrooms as equipment is moved between classrooms
    • Many classrooms use tables; there is no money in our Title 1 school for new furniture that allows for social distancing
    • There is no way to monitor safety protocols in bathrooms 
      • Bathrooms will be shared by 200+ students per day in my building
      • My school has only one student bathroom for the entire school; the “girls” bathroom is shared with the cafeteria
      • Bathroom toilets do not have lids (and often don’t have soap)
      • There is no way to monitor the number of students in the bathroom (insufficient staff)
      • There is no way to clean bathrooms between uses
    • Students will be at risk of cross-contamination/harm from substitute teachers, whether they are teachers assigned additional coverage who cross-contaminate classrooms, or whether they are  assigned or hired by the DOE to cover for teachers who fall ill

Concerns for staff safety

  • Safety
    • Staff must travel to and from school on public transportation
    • Staff must enter through common areas shared by six schools–cross-contamination
    • Staff must either use elevators–cross-contamination–or stairwells used by students from six schools–also cross-contamination
    • It will be nearly impossible to enforce mask-wearing protocols
    • If teachers move between rooms each day, teachers are exposed to every student, cross contaminating
    • There is one gender-specific staff bathroom for every two schools, cross contaminating the building
    • If students do not move–and eat in the classroom:
      • Teachers are unprotected when students’ masks are off
      • Teachers do not have a safe place to eat 
    • Teachers do not have the option to opt-out of in-person instruction if they feel unsafe
      • The list of health conditions that would qualify teachers for accommodations is short and insufficient
      • Teachers’ family health situations are not being taken into consideration AT ALL. The language on the application itself says:

Reasonable Accommodations to work remotely due to COVID-19 may only be granted for an employee’s own underlying medical condition(s). Employees who are unable to work at a school or DOE site for other reasons (e.g. child care, health of others in their household) may seek other options, such as a leave of absence, but are not eligible for a reasonable accommodation to work remotely

This language requires teachers to make an impossible choice to: 

  • Risk their families
  • Live separate from their families
  • Take a leave of absence that they can not afford
  • Lose their jobs and health insurance, which they can not afford

There is no option for teachers, unlike students,  to go remote if health or social conditions change, potentially putting them and their families at risk

But safety is far from the only issue with this plan for “partial reopening”. The plan raises tremendous issues of equity, as well. 
Concerns for student equity 

  •  Equity
    • Expecting students to stay in one room for six hours a day, not even leaving to eat lunch, is both unrealistic and extremely prison-like. 
    • It will be impossible to split ICT classes and to also provide both a SPED and a Gen Ed teacher in the room, as well as paras, as required due to:
      • Insufficient staffing
      • Insufficient spacing

(Note that every adult in the room reduces the number of students in the room by one, requiring more class periods. 3 adults {GE, SPED, para}: can teach only 7 SPED students)

  • It will be impossible to split ICT classes and maintain legally required percentages of SPED and Gen Ed students
  • Students and parents may feel pressured to attend even if they feel it is unsafe 
  • Students may be severely harmed emotionally–exacerbating COVID-induced trauma– if if adults they trusted during in-person instruction are granted a medical accommodation to work remotely and are not assigned to their home schools, limiting student access to supportive adults with whom they have already built a relationship 
  • Students may be severely harmed academically if their school programs change if teachers from their schools who are granted medical accommodation to work remotely are assigned elsewhere (one of the many questions that DOE and UFT have not yet answered)
  • Parents who work may feel the need to send their child to school even if they feel that it is unsafe.
  • Parents may not understand the rules and protocols around requesting remote learning due to barriers of language, education, unfamiliarity with the system, fears of reprisal, citizenship status, etc.
  • Parents of students with special needs may feel that they need to send their child to school, even if it is unsafe
  • Parents who feel that their home environment is conducive to remote learning will feel more comfortable keeping students home if they feel unsafe sending them
  • It will be impossible for teachers to meet with all students on a rotating basis at ⅓ population density without shortening class times to roughly 20-25 minutes, a wholly inadequate amount of time to teach and support even 9 students
  • Newer, better funded schools have ventilations systems which may be upgraded to filter the virus; our small Title 1 school has only windows which admit not only the elements  but also a great deal of street noise, multiplying the difficulty of students hearing teachers trying to articulate through masks from a greater-than-normal distance.
  • Parents in wealthier schools/districts may be able to purchase texts and/or equipment and calculators for students that our Title 1 students will have to share, placing them at greater risk
  • Larger, better funded schools may have additional classrooms or spaces to use which our small Title 1 school does not have: every room is already being used every period
  • Larger, better funded schools may be able to provide FM systems to boost teacher audibility through masks which our small Title 1 school can not 

Concerns for staff equity

  •  Equity
    • It will be impossible to fulfill our teaching and grading obligations within the contractual time (or even far beyond it)
      • With classrooms being limited to 9 students, teachers will need to teach 3x as many class periods in order to meet with all students, limiting class time to 20-25 minutes per class–significantly fewer than needed for effective instruction and support. 
      • Teachers in the classroom and remote are expected to teach “in lock step”, perhaps with teachers they have never met. The co-planning for this undertaking will be tremendous, teachers may need to have five times as many lesson plans (given the lack of actual detail in the reopening plans), all differentiated for learning needs, trauma-informed teaching, student access and technical facility::
        • Live in-person class with students who attend
        • Make-up/remote  class for students who are absent on days when they are scheduled for live in-person class
        • Live remote class, with students who attend when scheduled
        • Make-up remote class for students who are absent from scheduled remote class
        • Full remote
    • Teachers are being asked to determine within the next two weeks whether they will commit to teaching in-school or to request medical accommodations
      • Without knowing whether they will be teaching their own classes in their own schools
      • Without knowing whether they will be teaching for a new “remote school” or another school in their district
      • Without knowing whether their own schools and colleagues may be severely harmed if they are assigned to remote-teach elsewhere
      • Without knowing whether if they are assigned elsewhere they will have retention rights to return to their own schools when it is safe to do so
      • Without even knowing what grade or curriculum or subject they will be teaching if they are not in their own schools
    • Teachers who are not requesting accommodations at this time
      • May feel pressured to teach in-person rather than risk their sole income and source of health insurance during a pandemic
      • May become sick, pregnant, or have a family member who becomes sick or pregnant later and be unable to protect them
      • Need answers to critical questions such as:
        • If they are exposed to a student positive for COVID-19 and advised to quarantine, are those days deducted from their CAR?
        • Will they be expected to teach remotely?
        • What if it happens more than once?
        • If they become sick, is the school liable? Is the DOE liable?
        • If a student becomes sick, possibly in their classroom, could the teacher be liable?
        • If a teacher’s child is exposed to COVID-19 in school or day care because the teacher is at work, will the days be deducted from the teacher’s CAR?
        • If the teacher is advised by a doctor to quarantine until test results come back but the test is negative, will the days be deducted from the teacher’s CAR?
    • School programming–and therefore individual teachers within the school–may be severely harmed by finding out in Augus that they will have to completely change their programs because teachers who did request accommodations are being reassigned and there is no one to teach specific classes (such as IB or AP level courses that require specific teacher-training)

Additional issues and questions:

  1. The question, as it has been framed as a choice between live-in-person teaching and remote teaching, has been erroneously drawn. In fact, the choice is between remote teaching and socially-distant-covid-precautionary teaching, which is quite a different thing. The benefits of live-in-person teaching are almost, if not totally negated by the staggered schedules and social distancing required by socially-distant-covid-precautionary teaching. Think about it. Teachers can’t look over students’ shoulders; we can’t see micro-expressions; we can’t speak quietly 1:1 during class or in the hall; we can’t hand out pencils, band-aids, or even paper; we can’t provide immediate feedback to student work in progress; we can’t allow students to collaborate or work in groups. What we can do is the antithesis: stand at the front of the room and talk, exactly as we have long known is poor pedagogy. However, when teaching remotely, we can do almost all of the things that we can do in a classroom: we can see student work as they do it; we can see students’ expressions (if their cameras are on); we can create “rooms” where students can collaborate and we can pop in and out. What, therefore, is the real benefit TO STUDENTS of partial opening?
  2. Before the buildings closed, schools were promised PPE and sanitizer that never appeared. Given the current budgetary constraints and given that hospitals are still struggling (and failing) to acquire sufficient PPE, what guarantee do we have that staff and students’ needs will be met? Is the City permitting any school with insufficient supplies to close until they are provided? If not, all claims that health and safety are being protected are false.
  3. Before the buildings closed in March, the DOE assured all schools that they would be adequately cleaned and disinfected every night, but no additional supplies or overtime budget, nor additional staff, were provided. What guarantee do we have that this cleaning will occur each night? Is the City permitting any school with insufficient cleaning to close until supplies and staff and budget are provided? If not, all claims that health and safety are being protected are false.
  4. The Chancellor and Mayor both expounded upon the electrostatic sprayers that will be used nightly to disinfect the schools. Have these been purchased? What guarantee do we have that they will be provided to every school?  Is the City permitting any school that does not have functioning sprayers and sufficient supplies of disinfectant to close until they are provided? If not, all claims that health and safety are being protected are false.
  5. No disinfectant product, to be used in the electrostatic sprayers, has been named.  We have been told that it will be deposited but not wiped up, so it will be building up on desk surfaces, walls, etc. If staff and students are eating in the classrooms, or even if only their hands are touching the desks, will this chemical be absorbed into their skin? Into their food?  What guarantees do we have that it will be safe? What about pregnant students, staff, and teachers? Is there research on the safety of these chemicals to the fetus? Are schools permitted to close/stay closed without this information? Or if the long-term consequences of using these chemicals are unknown? If not, all claims that health and safety are being protected are false.
  6. If students or staff have allergic or dermatologic reactions to these chemicals, will they have medical and legal recourse? Will staff be permitted to work remotely? If not, all claims that health and safety are being protected are false.
  7. Right now, “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it his red line: liability protection for schools, businesses and other entities that reopen amid the pandemic must be part of any new coronavirus relief package.” (Turner, Trish. “Senate GOP Relief Bill to Include Liability Protections for Schools, Businesses that Reopen”. ABC News.  17 July 2020. https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/senate-gop-relief-bill-include-liability-protections-schools/story?id=71848623. Viewed 19 July 2020.)  If a teacher becomes sick, or a teacher’s family member becomes sick, or a student becomes sick, and if there are complications or long-term effects, but no school liability exists, staff and students are left without any financial recourse. This is untenable for all of us. 

For all of the above reasons, I request that the union take an inflexible stand to protect school staff and students until the City and surrounding counties where teachers reside have shown no new case of COVID-19 for 14 days (at best) and/or until every teacher and staff member is permitted, as are students, to request a medical accommodation to work from home for any reason AND until all questions have been fully and precisely answered (at worst).

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