Educators Fight to Close Schools, Wish Union Would Try Harder

This article was written by Crystal Lewis of The Chief. She interviewed Council Members Odalis Santana and Quinn Zannoni.

IS ANYBODY LISTENING?: Members of the United Federation of Teachers Movement of Rank and File Educators and UFT Solidarity caucuses fear Governor Cuomo’s decision that city public schools can remain open even if the city’s seven-day average coronavirus positivity rate reaches 9 percent will put staff and students in jeopardy. But they also were upset at their union for not fighting for schools to be closed. Odalis Santana, a third-grade Universal Literacy Coach, said her mom passed from COVID in April. ‘As a person who’s been through this, it’s scary,’ she said. Quinn Zannoni (right), a District 75 Teacher, said more-aggressive action was needed to protest schools remaining open.

Governor Cuomo’s decision to allow city public schools to remain open even if the city reaches the seven-day average COVID positivity rate of 9 percent has triggered frustration and fear from educators, particularly among two dissident groups within the United Federation of Teachers.

Although it was previously established that schools would close if the city reached that 9-percent threshold using state data, Mr. Cuomo announced Jan. 4 that schools would not have to close if they had positivity rates lower than their surrounding communities.

Well Below ‘Outside’ Nos.

That makes it less likely for schools to close, because the COVID positivity rate within schools has been far below the citywide level.

As coronavirus cases spike across the city, the UFT’s Movement of Rank and File Educators caucus is pushing for closings.

Peter Lamphere-Allen, a high school Math and Technology Teacher and member of MORE, said that the change has caused “a lot of anger and confusion and fear” among school staff. “People don’t understand why things keep changing. They don’t feel safe,” he said. He compared the Governor’s announcement to the city’s decision to stop using the 3-percent
standard it had established over the summer to determine whether schools should close.

“I think it shows that, like de Blasio walking back on the 3-percent threshold, politicians’ promises were meant to be broken,” Mr. Lamphere said.

The UFT Solidarity caucus has also been pushing for in-person classes to end immediately. Odalis Santana, a Universal Literacy Coach currently teaching in third-grade, said she was concerned about schools reopening Jan. 4 after many students and staff left the state for the holidays.

Already Paid a Price

“As a Teacher who got COVID back in March—my children got the virus and were asymptomatic and my mom got it also and passed away April 10—as a person who’s been through this, it’s scary,” she said.

Quinn Zannoni, a District 75 Teacher and Solidarity member, said the decision came at a bad time because schools were beginning to offer classes five days a week. “If you double or triple the number of people in the building, you double or triple the risk,” he said.

One member of MORE’s Health Justice Working Group, who wished to remain anonymous, argued that the school testing data the Governor and Mayor have been basing their decisions on is flawed.

Schools have been required to randomly test 20 percent of students and staff on a weekly basis. About 100,000 tests have been administered so far in schools, with a COVID positivity rate of 0.68 percent, far below the city’s rate of 9.25 percent. (The state, which calculates COVID positivity differently than the city, reported that the city had a 6.4-percent seven-day average). . .

The frustration felt by educators wasn’t just aimed at the Governor and the Mayor: it was also directed at the UFT’s leadership. The educators called on UFT President Michael Mulgrew to take more-aggressive action to close schools. “I think a lot of people are willing to strike to get schools to close,” Ms. Santana said.

Questions Mulgrew’s ‘Teeth’

“I think we should have gone on strike a while ago, personally,” said Ms. Jones. “But I don’t think Mulgrew has the teeth.”

Mr. Zannoni cited the “amazing” efforts of Chicago school staff—40 percent of them did not show up to work on Jan. 4—as an example of public-school employees fighting against the current conditions.

Although Mr. Mulgrew has pushed for middle and high schools to remain closed, he did not weigh in on whether elementary schools should stop in-person instruction until the Governor’s announcement.

“Using that state measure, if the community infection rate in the city hits 9 percent, the safe thing to do is to close the schools, even if the in-school rate is lower,” he said.

Mr. Lamphere-Allen noted that it was “very significant”—and unusual—for Mr. Mulgrew to oppose the Governor.

“Anything that Mulgrew is doing is in response to the anger and pressure of the rank-and-file. There’s a lot of anger at the union leadership because they keep accepting these broken promises,” the Teacher said.

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