Some New York City teachers and officials have criticized the city’s education and health departments for opaque, slow and inconsistent responses to reports of COVID-19 cases in their school communities during the weeks leading up to the closure of city schools.
Now, they’re wondering if the city’s inconsistency has led to outbreaks in school communities that could have been prevented.
Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio officially closed the schools to students starting on March 16th, but teachers were asked to report to school for several days of remote instruction training that week.
“My anger is the week before the schools shut down, and during the week of training, the health department should have communicated with those individual school communities that there were self-reported cases of the virus,” said City Councilmember Mark Treyger, who chairs the council’s committee on education, in an interview.
“I’m starting to hear cases where teachers have reported coming down with the virus — clusters in buildings. In many cases they didn’t shut the schools down. What I’m hearing is that the process was completely disjointed,” Treyger said.
Treyger pointed to a situation at P.S. 199 in Midwood, where a pregnant teacher said she informed her principal that she had tested positive for the virus. But the building remained open the following week for teacher trainings and for families to pick up materials for students.
According to a Department of Education spokesperson, the school principal was first notified on March 13th, a Friday. The building was deep-cleaned over the weekend, and schools did not reopen to students on the following Monday. Teachers who felt sick were not required to come to work.
Treyger said that’s not good enough.
“The building never shut down,” he said. “There are educators who have been quarantining at home with elderly parents. They would have made different plans. That’s what gets me so infuriated.”
Treyger said he has now heard of at least five positive cases in the P.S. 199 community.
Now that most schools are closed, he’s calling for mandatory notification of positive cases to the relevant school communities, and statistics from the city on how many DOE employees have tested positive.
DOE press secretary Miranda Barbot said the city followed guidance from the state.
“We understand there is a lot of confusion and uncertainty across the city, and from day one we’ve taken this ever-changing situation extremely seriously, communicating up-to-date health guidance as soon as possible and ultimately closing all buildings for at least a month,” Barbot said in an emailed statement.
“We followed a clear protocol outlined by the state, and closed the one school confirmed to have a positive case in addition to six more sites that had self-reported cases, and we continue to support schools in notifying their communities of a self-reported positive case,” she said.
Barbot added that last week custodians deep-cleaned buildings daily while teachers were back in school for training.
Given that the coronavirus reached the level of widespread “community transmission” in New York City three weeks ago, “the city’s health department was clear that a positive case in the school or workplace environment did not put others at higher risk than did anywhere else in the city,” she said.
City Health Department spokesperson Michael Lanza said in an email, “We worked closely with the Department of Education on sharing the latest information with school communities and continue to do our best to keep families and staff safe.”
On Thursday, de Blasio said the school-cleaning guidelines were followed properly but also acknowledged the city was in a “whole different reality” two weeks ago. “We’ve checked very carefully, I have no evidence whatsoever that those guidelines were not followed in the past. … I believe those guidelines were followed properly when we were in a whole different reality a couple weeks ago,” de Blasio said at a press briefing.
A teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School near Brighton Beach said officials did not inform staff or respond quickly enough to positive cases in that school’s community. The teacher has asked not to be identified to protect their job.
On March 9th, the mother of four Lincoln students called the school and said her husband had tested positive for COVID-19 — but the Lincoln teacher said this was not immediately communicated to the staff. Instead, the principal sent out a letter the next day informing staff of a potential case.
Of the four siblings who were students at the school, the principal said three had been in school March 9th, and all were isolated immediately and sent home. Custodians were instructed to do a deep cleaning of the facility overnight.
The school opened the next day and remained open all week. At the time, state protocol called for schools to shutter for 24 hours after a case had been identified for a deep cleaning and to track any close contacts the sick individual had had.
But, according to the DOE, officials didn’t receive the results of the students’ tests until the following weekend. The three siblings who had been in school that Monday tested negative. Their fourth sibling who had not been in school since March 5th tested positive.
“To this day I still don’t know who has tested positive in my school and how many cases tested positive in my school,” the Lincoln teacher said. They and their partner have had mild symptoms including shortness of breath, coughing, and fatigue. They were tested last Friday and haven’t gotten results yet. Another teacher at Lincoln has also tested positive.
“The general consensus was we were all exposed, we’re all going to get it,” said the Lincoln teacher. “And now we’re all dispersed and we have no idea how many people have been infected in our school community.”
At Crotona International High School in the Bronx, a teacher received a positive test result on the afternoon of March 12th. The teacher said he notified his principal, who sought guidance from the education and health departments.
News of the case spread to staff and students at Crotona and two other schools that share space in the Grace Dodge Campus. But the following morning, on March 13th, school leadership informed students that city officials had not confirmed the case and school would remain open.
The teacher said a letter went out to staff confirming his case the following Monday, on March 16th.
“To date no one from the Department of Health nor the Department of Education has contacted me, which is ridiculous,” he said in an interview Friday.
The teacher, who has been in quarantine for the past two weeks, said there are now six to eight confirmed positive cases at Crotona, and he’s worried those cases could have spread to the other two schools co-located in the Dodge campus and in the densely populated Belmont area of the Bronx that surrounds it.
“The way that the DOE, DOH and city of New York have handled this has been extremely, extremely irresponsible,” he said.
At Brooklyn Democracy Academy in Brownsville, principal Dez-Ann Romain reported feeling ill on March 12th, her last day of work at the school. The school facilities were deep-cleaned and disinfected that day.
Romain was admitted to a hospital for pneumonia on March 18th. On March 20th, the school sent a letter to students, staff and faculty to notify the community of a “self-reported case” of COVID-19. Romain died on March 23rd.
“Our heart goes out to the family, students and colleagues of (Dez-Ann) Romain,” the United Federation of Teachers said in a statement. “However, in the week leading up to system-wide school closure, we had been given information that led us to believe that the New York City Department of Health was not following the school closing protocol issued by the state for COVID-19. We had been informed that all final decisions for individual school closings – along with medical investigations and notification of impacted members of the school community – rested with the New York City Department of Health. For these reasons, the UFT was prepared to go to court to shut the schools, but stopped when city officials finally listened to reason and ordered the schools closed.”
The day after Romain’s death, Ronda Phillips, the principal of Kappa V Knowledge and Power Preparatory Academy, was reportedly hospitalized in intensive care.
Her school, located at 985 Rockaway Avenue, is in the same building as Romain’s school.