NYC, UFT reopening agreement delays school start, boosts safety

Dive Brief:

  • An agreement reached Tuesday between New York City and the United Federation of Teachers will delay the beginning of in-person learning to Sept. 21 while final safety arrangements are made in line with the deal, avoiding a strike. 
  • Under the agreement, schools reopening will have to meet standards presented in a 55-item health and safety checklist from UFT, which includes a nurse in every school, socially distanced desks, mask and face shield availability and room-by-room ventilation checks. Students, teachers and NYC Department of Education staff will have prioritized access at 34 COVID-19 testing sites around the city, with a random sample of 10% to 20% of blended learning students and on-site staff tested monthly beginning Oct. 1.
  • Teachers are expected to return to buildings on Sept. 8 for training, professional development, collaboration and blended and remote learning preparation. Orientations and preparations designed to help students adjust for the academic year will begin Sept. 16.

Dive Insight:

Of the nation’s 15 largest school systems, New York City is the only in the continental U.S. to plan a face-to-face reopening. Hawaii is the only other in that group to do the same. As a result, and combined with the city’s status as an early epicenter for COVID-19 when the pandemic first shut down schools, what happens in New York has been of great interest to other districts nationwide.

“Reopening school during an ongoing pandemic is one of the most complex challenges any government anywhere has had to figure out in modern history, and New York City is best positioned to do so,” said Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza in a statement

It’s a sentiment UFT President Michael Mulgrew echoed in his suggestion that the city “will now have the most aggressive policies and the strongest safeguards of any school system in the nation.”

Mulgrew previously pushed back on the city’s plans to reopen, calling its initial standards for doing so “not enough,” citing teachers’ “grave concerns” that schools could not effectively maintain coronavirus safety. Among those initial standards were a system of routinely testing school community members and steps for quarantining classrooms or entire buildings in the event of positive cases. 

NYC’s hybrid learning plan also called for schools to only reopen if the city’s infection rate remained below 3%, which Mayor Bill de Blasio at the time called a “high standard” to meet. The city’s current infection rate is 1.3%, and under the newly agreed upon terms, schools must transition to fully remote instruction if the city’s infection rate rises to 3% or higher using a seven-day rolling average, according to a union fact sheet emailed to Education Dive. All school buildings could also be closed in the event of “recurrent, uncontrolled outbreaks.”

However, ensuring the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) and disinfectants could become more difficult for districts across the nation. According to a letter sent to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Pete Gaynor by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, and 21 other organizations, the agency is planning a policy guidance change that would remove those items as eligible reimbursable expenses for COVID-19.

The letter calls the move a continuation of “a troubling pattern of shifting costs and responsibilities onto state and local governments, including state and local education agencies, when they can least afford it.”

While community partnerships will help make ends meet on some of the health and safety protocols, like placing a nurse in every building, the price tag for reopening is still expected to be hefty. June estimates from AASA, The School Superintendents Association and the Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO) placed the cost of reopening with necessary health and safety measures at an additional $1.8 million for an average school district.

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