By Peter Szekely and Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City teachers on Wednesday threatened to strike or take other job or legal action unless the largest U.S. school district implements a more rigorous COVID-19 testing plan and other safety measures before the system’s scheduled reopening next month.
The warning by the United Federation of Teachers, which represents the city’s 133,000 public school teachers, could delay Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to provide a mix of in-classroom and online learning beginning Sept 10.
“The minute we feel that the mayor is trying to force people in to a situation that is unsafe … we go to court, we take a job action,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said during a briefing, adding that a “job action” could include a strike.
Many U.S. schools and universities got off to a faltering start in welcoming students back to campus and the classroom this week. In several cases, spikes of positive COVID-19 tests administered to returning students and staff forced schools to delay or scupper plans for classroom instruction and limit students to remote learning programs.
On Tuesday, the University of Notre Dame and Michigan State University rolled back their plans for in-person classes, with Notre Dame pushing back classes by two weeks after reporting 80 cases on Monday and Michigan switching to all-remote for the semester.
Earlier this month, Chicago’s school district delayed a plan to allow students the option of attending class in pods of 15 pupils twice a week after the teachers union threatened to strike. Instead, all of the district’s 350,000 students will take classes remotely until at least Nov. 6.
In New York, de Blasio has said his school district will move forward with a blended learning plan of part-time remote, part-time in-person starting Sept. 10. The plan includes a recommendation that students and staff get tested at least once a month in the fall and a rule that students sit six feet apart and wear face coverings on school buses.
The union has called on the mayor to address ventilation issues in school buildings and implement stricter procedures on bussing students, in addition to demands for increased testing students and staff.
Mulgrew said the UFT was still waiting for a response to its demands and did not think a Sept. 10 opening was feasible.
City Hall did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Health experts say COVID-19 testing is key to bringing university students back to campus. But school protocols vary, with some colleges not planning to test asymptomatic students and others planning to test all students twice a week.
Boston University’s approximately 18,000 undergraduate students will take coronavirus tests twice a week, with the school’s own laboratories aiming to return results within 24 hours.
The president of Colby College in Maine told the school in June that its plan to test each of its 1,800 undergraduate students twice a week could cost up to $10 million for the year.
Residents of college towns that have kept the virus at bay have voiced concerns about flare-ups in cases once students return.
Officials in three towns in Connecticut, where the infection rate has recently hovered below 1%, wrote a letter to state officials earlier this month urging them to enforce strict social distancing measures for college students coming from areas with higher infection rates.
“As host communities for large numbers of students, we believe it is absolutely necessary to have further restrictions on outdoor and indoor gatherings to protect the health of both our permanent residents and our student residents,” they wrote in the letter, the Hartford Courant reported.
Middlebury College in Vermont, a state where there have been about 1,500 cases total, has told students to “pack light” when returning to campus and have an “evacuation plan” in the event that an outbreak forces them to go home abruptly.
Locals are pleading with students to adhere to safety measures.
“The town of Middlebury does not have the infrastructure to cope with a massive outbreak that starts on campus,” wrote student and local resident Henry Ganey in a letter published in The Middlebury Campus newspaper this week.
At Tulane University in New Orleans, students were invited back to campus this week but were told they could be expelled or suspended for hosting large gatherings.
“All parents have worries both about the pandemic and whether all of these precautions will ultimately be successful. But it seems that the Tulane community is bringing the right amount of intentionality and preparation to this,” said Elizabeth Baker, a labor union lawyer from Maplewood, New Jersey who dropped off her daughter last week.
Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Peter Szekely, Jonathan Allen and Barbara Goldberg; Writing by Gabriella Borter.