NEW YORK — Thursday was the first day back in the classroom for New York City public school teachers. As the educators headed back to the classroom to prepare for the new academic year, questions are still being raised over what it will look like in terms of safety.
With students walking back into school in less than a week, there’s not much time left to settle some disputes on COVID protocols.
This scramble has some teachers, and the city’s largest teachers union, concerned about a few issues.
“I’m so proud of everything they did last year, but this year is a greater challenge for the entire city,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said outside a Hell’s Kitchen school Thursday morning.
He announced that the UFT had purchased at least 70 carbon dioxide monitors and had trained nearly 75 teachers to use them. They will give staffers the ability to independently check for proper ventilation in classrooms.
“As we have proceeded through this pandemic, it is clear now that it’s vaccine, masks and ventilation, those are our key factors,” Mulgrew said.
Teacher and staff vaccine requirement
Regarding vaccines, teachers and school staff are now required to be vaccinated for the new school year, with at least one dose a must by Sept. 27.
The city hasn’t immediately said whether there will be exemptions or what the penalty will be for refusing, though Mayor Bill de Blasio told MSNBC that “there will clearly be consequences.”
Mulgrew couldn’t comment on what kind of consequences an educator might face if they don’t comply, as the union is still in arbitration with the city over the details of the mandate.
“We were a little bit shocked when the city said they would issues an accommodation but still take someone off the payroll,” the union leader said about the city’s previous vaccinate-or-test requirement plan that had provisions for unpaid suspensions for workers who didn’t comply.
The mayor said the city intends to implement the requirement Sept. 27, with or without a deal with the union.
As far as vaccination rates among teachers so far, while the city has said it’s at about 72%, Mulgrew said he believes it’s closer to the low-to-mid 80s. He alleged the city and state lost about five weeks of teacher vaccine records from the “height of the pandemic.”
Proper spacing in schools
Another issue Mulgrew said was a concern as nearly one million students return to schools for the new year is spacing and coordination of space.
“The cafeteria is a big concern,” Mulgrew said. “The cafeteria is the one place we have to make sure the ventilation is being done properly, and we have to continue to make sure the 3-foot spacing rule is in effect, especially when children are eating.”
Student socialization and in-person interaction
The additional issue that teachers will have to grapple with when their students return next week is socialization and mental health.
Mulgrew cited stories of incoming high-school freshman who had only experienced months of a true junior high experience, and high-school juniors who had only had about six months of in-person learning in their schools.
“That causes problems,” the union president said. “It’s been a hard undertaking with all the remote learning that we’ve done last year…But it really is now about doing everything in our power to keep our children safe, and to move them into a better place in their development and their education,” he added.
Mulgrew said they planned to do an academic diagnostic for every New York City student, and that training for that will happen over the next few days, and be followed up with more training in the beginning of the school year.
The goal is to have educators and staff be trained to check on students for any sort of social or emotional crisis they might be having, he said.