I read Sue Edelman's Saturday NY Post article very closely while getting angrier and angrier as she detailed multiple schools that were unsafe but the Department of Education kept them open for staff during the coronavirus pandemic.
The title tells most of the story: "‘Blood on their hands:’ Teachers say de Blasio and Carranza helped spread coronavirus"
One after another, sick Brooklyn Technical High School teachers called union chapter leader Nate Bonheimer last week, to tell him they’d tested positive for COVID-19.
By Friday, five of them had shared the devastating news. But after being notified about each one, the city Department of Education still ordered the 6,000-student school’s 350 staffers to show up for work last week, saying the building had been cleaned.
“The DOE did not close the school for any of the cases,” said Bonheimer, who worries that inaction exposed others to the dreaded infection.
The city failed to follow a March 9 directive by the state Education Department that “requires an initial 24-hour closure, in order to begin an investigation to determine the contacts that the individual may have had within the school environment.”
Brooklyn Tech was not alone.
At the Grand Street campus in Williamsburg, which houses three high schools, a teacher returned from a trip to China over the February break. Despite reports of the outbreak, the teacher did not self-quarantine, but returned to teach kids in all three schools Feb. 26 through Feb. 29, a staffer said.
The teacher then became sick and stopped working. The school was not closed, and employees were not notified, insiders said.
Up to four other staffers have since become sick, they said.
The teacher did not return a message, but a relative said Friday, “He’s very ill, and so is his entire staff,” before declining to comment further.
Last Thursday — after Grand Street teachers worked three days in a row in the building — the principals sent a joint letter saying that “members of our school community” had self-reported positive COVID-19 tests. It did not say how many members or give other details.
And another school building:
At the Jamaica High School campus, which houses three schools, Carlos Borrero, principal of the High School for Community Leadership, blasted a robocall to parents the Sunday before schools closed for students, reporting the school had “one confirmed” case and another “preliminary positive” case identified over the prior two days — while students attended. One was a teacher, Borrero said.
Asked about the announcement last week, the DOE would not give details.
At the Grace Dodge High School campus in the Bronx, a teacher self-reported a positive COVID-19 test on Thursday, March 12, staffers said. The DOE did not close the school the next day, when kids still attended before de Blasio announced that all schools would close for students starting March 16.
Teachers received a form letter from Carranza confirming a staffer had tested positive, saying the building was “disinfected.” The school was not closed while teachers worked last week.
“We asked when students and parents would get notification, and they still haven’t gotten it,” a teacher said. The DOE had no comment.
And still another:
At the Bronx’s Alfred E. Smith campus which houses three high schools, teachers reported for three days of training on remote-teaching to begin next week.
“Ten minutes before the end of the last day, the union rep walked through the hall and said, ‘You’re free to leave,’” a teacher said. She asked why.
As custodians arrived in Hazmat suits, the union rep replied, “There’s coronavirus in the building.”
We know of three other Queens High School buildings that house seven high schools that had the same situation with people in the buildings possibly or definitely testing positive for coronavirus. Only one principal from these schools that we are aware of told teachers to work remotely. My educated guess is there were plenty of other schools where someone inside the building tested positive for the Covid-19 virus. Here is another example from Queens.
We completely agree with the conclusion of a DOE employee quoted in the Post piece:
"Some DOE employees believe de Blasio and Carranza deliberately kept the lid on the COVID-19 cases popping up, putting kids and families at risk.
'The blood is on their hands,' one said."
Blame Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio all you like. But what about the supposedly powerful UFT and its leader Michael Mulgrew?
The best we could get out of the Union for the Post story was this: “Unfortunately, the DOE suspended keeping track of positive cases.” That was from a teacher citing a UFT official. It was not an official UFT quote. On the Chalkbeat NY story on Dodge, the UFT silence says it all:
The union United Federation of Teachers did not respond to requests for comment.
Thousands of UFT members placed in jeopardy in multiple school buildings last week and the Union is suddenly shy. That is unacceptable. Did the UFT put anything out in writing?
All the UFT had to do was say this: STAY HOME!
This blog was all over this last week as UFT members were reaching out to me asking if they had to go to work inside school buildings if they didn't know if it was safe. I personally have multiple family members who work in the system and I still work part-time in the schools. ICEUFTblog put in writing a piece on Monday explaining member rights and fearing UFT caution. On Tuesday, after learning how there was nothing essential going on in the buildings but more importantly that new coronavirus cases were being discovered inside multiple schools, we pleaded with members not to go to work in schools but instead to work from home.
Buildings were not safe. What was UFT President Michael Mulgrew saying to his members? He was doing a Facebook video telling teachers how to teach remotely.
Here is what Bronx ATR said in commenting on Friday's post on Brooklyn Tech:
Of course, teachers are correct to be outraged over deBlasio’s dangerous leadership and Mulgrew’s timid response (and his deafening silence after schools were finally closed and teachers told to report), but no one forced anyone to do anything. If I had gone in, I would have been angry with myself and perhaps that’s really what’s at issue here. That’s a good thing. It’s a painful reminder that teachers have to start doing their own thinking. It’s also a reminder of what the UFT really is. This reminder can facilitate radical change - not by suing, but by speaking out for your human and contractual rights. If Mulgrew’s allowing you to be sent into biological minefields doesn’t wake you up, nothing will. As some of you start getting sick or worse (and I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen), remember.
Bronx ATR is absolutely right. This is a turning point for me. I have defended staying in this union since Janus was decided by the Supreme Court in 2018 when union dues became optional. I thought we were better off inside than out. We had to keep the union as strong as possible even if we disagreed with the leadership. I'm not sure I still feel that way after what happened last week.
The UFT proved once and for all that they are there to defend their automatic dues checkoff more than their members when they wouldn't tell members in no uncertain terms not to enter buildings that were unsafe unless it was for something essential like making sure kids are fed. The Taylor Law fines public employees in New York State two days pay for every day they strike and denies the union automatic dues checkoff if there is an illegal strike. There is no way in hell in my view the anti-strike provisions were going to be invoked under our current circumstances even if everyone stayed home. And what if it was invoked? As a union leader and a human being, wouldn't you rather keep members safe and worry about dues checkoff later?
On social media, I saw that there was a perception that I only spoke up because I can as a retiree. That kind of infuriated me. Back when I was Chapter Leader at Jamaica High School in 2006, the water was shut off in the building. There was not enough pressure for the toilets to flush. We had no idea why the water was off. I received calls in my classroom about two minutes into the crisis. I rang the UFT and within an hour was in touch with President Randi Weingarten. She immediately called Chancellor Joel Klein who soon thereafter phoned the Principal and the building was shut down. Staff and students were sent home. We were contemplating walking out if they didn't act. We didn't care about the Taylor Law. It was our health and the health of the students. The UFT fully supported us.
There was an Executive Board meeting that evening. Randi told me she would be at the school at 6:30 A.M. the following day and if the water was not on, we weren't going in. It turned out there was construction in the area so the water was turned off purposely but it was turned back on in a few hours. It just took a while for the pressure to build up into the school. The water was fully operational in the morning and the building had been cleaned so Randi ended up with a nice photo-op. The point is that the UFT was fully prepared to keep us out of an unsafe building and we were ready to leave. There was still a semblance of a union operating in 2006.
In 2020, Mulgrew obviously could not have come to all of the infected buildings but instead of being silent, he needed to put the word out that school buildings could not be guaranteed as safe as Covid-19 was spreading rapidly so don't enter them. Did anyone get that kind of memo from the Union? There are times when leaders have to say, F**k it, I'm doing what's right and I don't care about the consequences.
Back in 2010 when the DOE had its Joint Public Hearing with the School Leadership Team to close Jamaica High School, I was screaming points of order in a full auditorium at Deputy Chancellor John White to shut him up as he was dictating procedure for the meeting. A colleague was threatening White that he would settle our dispute with him in the parking lot. DOE security was telling me to leave the auditorium which I refused to do. When they threatened to arrest me, I answered: "On what charge, raising a point of order." I told them to arrest White for not yielding to hear it. It all got straightened out and we never went to jail or the rubber room. UFT officials who were in attendance that evening supported me. One chapter leader who was there compared me to the legendary hall of fame Orioles manager Earl Weaver arguing with an umpire. As a long time admirer of Earl, I took that as a compliment.
I'm not writing any of this to say I am some fearless leader. I'm not. In fact, I am a bit of a germaphobe so the current situation is extra alarming for me. I am scared for my family, friends, the city, the nation, the entire world and of course myself as the Covid-19 virus spreads. We should be worried about the virus and not concerned about the DOE or UFT.
It's time for answers from the Union. I fully acknowledge that Mulgrew helped lead the charge to get schools closed for the kids while the mayor was dithering and delaying. However, why did UFT leadership not tell UFT members in no uncertain terms to keep away from buildings leaders knew might be infected with Covid-19 which by last week was basically all of them? I would hope one of the so-called "independents" on the UFT Executive Board will ask that question. Or, are teachers just going to panic about being forced to be active on a computer for six hours and fifty minutes for online learning this week?
My advice to teachers is to do the best you can with remote teaching but don't worry about it further. Are you going to get a letter in your file if your computer crashes? Nobody said we had to be tech geniuses to be teachers. Stay connected to the students; be positive and reassuring with the kids but don't worry about DOE micromanagement. We have bigger problems now.
As I said earlier, last week's UFT inaction was a turning point for me. If it is true that the Taylor Law prohibition against strikes was more important than member safety to Mulgrew and the rest of the leadership, then it's time for them to seriously think about what their responsibilities are as unionists or to step aside if they are not up to the daunting challenges we face. For the rest of us, we need to rethink paying any dues to this Union if they don't change now. I don't say that lightly.