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Teaching Profession

New York City Teachers’ Union Threatens Strike Over School Reopenings

By Catherine Gewertz — August 20, 2020 6 min read
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Teachers in New York City, the country’s biggest school district, are threatening to strike if the city doesn’t put a long list of safeguards in place within three weeks, when the city plans to reopen schools with a model that includes face-to-face instruction.

In a press conference Wednesday, leaders of the city’s teachers’ union, the 75,000-member United Federation of Teachers, said they were prepared to strike if adequate safety precautions aren’t in place for students and staff members. New York state law prohibits strikes by public-sector unions, but UFT President Mike Mulgrew said the union is prepared to take its battle to court if necessary.

“The union is prepared to go to court and/or go on strike if we need to,” he said, according to an NPR report. Other news reports quoted Mulgrew as saying that if schools do open without the right health protections, it “might be one of the biggest debacles in the history of the city.”

The union’s rhetoric, combined with what Mulgrew himself acknowledged is the near-impossibility of the district addressing all of the items on its three-page list of safety concerns by Sept. 10, raises the specter of a strike in the country’s biggest school system, where 1 million students and 100,000 staff members are scheduled to begin instruction. Union pushback is cropping up in other cities, too, including Detroit, where union members on Wednesday authorized their leaders to declare a “safety strike.” If they take such a step, it would mean that teachers would not report to work in person, but they’d continue to teach virtually.

With COVID-19 cases surging in many places, the issue of school safety isn’t one that’s about to go away. According to Education Week’s database of districts’ reopening plans dozens of districts across the country still plan to include at least some level of in-person instruction when they reopen. New York City is one of the few large districts that’s still including face-to-face instruction in its plans. As of Aug. 18, the EdWeek database showed that 20 of the 25 largest districts are teaching remote-only.

The country’s second-largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, refused in late July to rule out strikes in its member districts if health and safety conditions aren’t met.

See also: Teachers Are Scared to Go Back to School. Will They Strike?

New York City was once a coronavirus epicenter, but now virus rates have dropped to low levels: Mayor Bill DiBlasio said yesterday that the latest health department figures show a test-positivity rate of less than one-quarter of 1 percent. City officials used that data point—and a list of safety protocols it’s planning—to defend its decision to reopen schools in a few weeks.

Talking with reporters during a visit to a city school yesterday, Bill DiBlasio noted that parents can choose whether to send their children to school in person or keep them home for remote instruction. A department survey found that two-thirds would choose remote instruction. He said his administration would keep talking with the UFT, but he threw this barb in, too, according to the Washington Post: “We care more about kids and parents than these games.”

The city education department didn’t mince words either when responding to the UFT’s announcement. “This is fear-mongering,” press secretary Mirando Barbot said in a statement posted on Twitter by ABC’s local affiliate.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, said in an interview Thursday that the UFT is doing nothing more than pushing for “common-sense” precautions. DiBlasio, she said, has “a hell of a nerve” saying the union is playing games “when the mayor himself has had his head in the sand since March.”

“The problem here is that the mayor has not managed the reopening effectively,” Weingarten said.

Among other things, the UFT wants the district to permit union inspectors to examine every school building to ensure that there’s adequate ventilation, sufficient space to keep six feet between desks, and sufficient personal protective equipment. It also wants a guarantee that a nurse will staff each building.

The city’s principals union has raised concerns about school safety, too. In an August 12 letter, union president Mark Cannizzaro said he’s concerned that the district plans to reopen on Sept. 10 in “disregard of the well-being of our school communities.” Principals don’t have enough time to implement complex safety protocols, he said.

Detroit, Boston Heat Up

School reopening plans in Detroit heated up yesterday, too, as the union readied itself for a possible “safety strike,” in which teachers would work remotely, but refuse to come to school as planned for in-person instruction on Sept. 8. In an emergency meeting yesterday, 91 percent of the members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers authorized the strike.

Terrence Martin, the union’s president, said in a news conference Wednesday that eight in 10 of his members want to teach only remotely. Authorizing a strike isn’t a step the union takes lightly, he said, but it felt it was necessary, according to CNN.

In a one-sentence statement posted on Twitter, Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he was confident that discussions with the union can bring about a safe reopening of schools. In a series of tweets Wednesday and Thursday, the district said the idea that schools can’t reopen was a “myth,” noting that test-positivity rates are below 3 percent and that no teacher is required to teach face-to-face.

Martin, however, countered in the union’s statement that “choice on whether to work remotely or in person is yet to be codified with signatures and guaranteed for all our members.”

Teachers in Boston held a demonstration outside the Masschusetts State House yesterday over the safety of school reopenings. They want Gov. Charlie Baker to require rapid coronavirus testing for students and staff and make sure schools’ ventilation systems are inspected before schools’ scheduled Sept. 21 reopening. “We don’t feel that our buildings are ready to accept our children ... at this moment,” Boston teacher Ana Arroyo told NBC Boston.

One school district in Arizona had to delay this Monday’s scheduled school opening after several dozen teachers refused to report for work. Gregory Wyman, the superintendent of the J.O. Combs Unified district in San Tan Valley, Ariz., posted a letter to district families Aug. 14, saying he received so many notices of teacher absences that he’d have to cancel school, which was scheduled to begin Aug. 17. The district delayed again, until Aug. 19, and that evening, the school board voted to shift from a hybrid approach to an all-remote instructional model.

Connecticut’s largest teachers’ union wants to postpone the start of school for two weeks and expand remote learning in some school districts. In Hawaii, the teachers union last week threatened to file labor complaints against the state if schools reopen without adequate safety measures. The state’s biggest teachers’ union in Utah has also issued a list of demands it wants state officials to meet.

Staff writer Madeline Will contributed reporting for this story.

Photo: A teacher holds a sign in protest of schools opening in Boston Aug. 19. More than 100 Massachusetts teachers gathered in front of the State House to protest in-person learning, and demand the 2020-21 school year begin with fully remote instruction due to COVID-19. (Allison Dinner/ZUMA)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.