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NYC delays return to public school classrooms due to COVID-19 safety concerns

Florida fires Quest Diagnostics, Hillary Clinton weighs-in on pandemic, GM donates millions of masks
Image: Bill de Blasio
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks to reporters after visiting New Bridges Elementary School in Brooklyn on Aug. 19, 2020.John Minchillo / AP

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday that he is delaying reopening the nation’s biggest public school system to in-person learning for two weeks after the city’s powerful teachers union complained about inadequate COVID-19 safeguards and threatened to strike.

“What would have happened on Sept. 10 now happens on Sept. 21,” De Blasio said at a news conference.

The announcement came as the battle over how best to reopen schools during a pandemic was being fought in districts across the country, often pitting teachers against President Donald Trump's administration, which has been pushing hard to get pupils back into classrooms even in states that continue to see large numbers of new COVID-19 cases.

In New York City, teachers and staff will be preparing classrooms from Sept. 10 to Sept. 15 so students can learn in safety, de Blasio said. Then from Sept. 16 to Sept. 18, classes will begin online during what de Blasio called a “transitional period.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, was with De Blasio when the mayor announced the change.

“Our medical experts have stamped this plan, and we now can say that the New York City public school system has the most aggressive policies and greatest safeguards of any school system in America,” said Mulgrew, whose union represents 133,000 teachers and other education workers.

Among other things, de Blasio promised teachers monthly coronavirus testing for students and staff, although it was not immediately clear how many people at each school would be tested at a time. He also said they would be doing random testing at schools to find the asymptomatic students who could potentially spread the virus to classmates and teachers.

“Reopening school during an ongoing pandemic is one of the most complex challenges any government anywhere has had to figure out in modern history, and New York City is best positioned to do so,” Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said. “So many things about this year will be new, but the fundamentals remain the same: the majority of our students plan to return to buildings, students will learn best in person with a caring teacher as often as possible, and we will lead with health and safety every step of the way.”

Had the UFT walked off the job, they would have been in violation of the so-called Taylor Law, which allows for fining and jailing teachers for striking.

But in a sign of how concerned teachers were about safety, Mulgrew last month was quick to draw a line in the sand after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave the green light to send kids back to schools.

"The minute we feel the mayor is trying to force people into a situation that is unsafe, we go to court,” Mulgrew said. “We go to job actions."

Back in March, when the pandemic was raging in New York City, De Blasio was slow to shut down city schools, even as the Chicago and Los Angeles public schools were switching to online education, enraging both teachers and some parents.

Since then, New York has been able to flatten the curve although new cases continue to pop up and public health officials have reported alarming spikes in school districts and universities across the U.S. that have already reopened.

New York reported 754 new COVID-19 cases, three deaths and an infection rate of less than one percent on Tuesday — a massive improvement over March and April when the state was the nation's hot spot. And while New York continues to lead the nation in total number of COVID-19 deaths with 33,785, states like Florida, Texas and Arizona that began reopening in May at Trump's urging have seen the most deaths and cases in recent months.

California, a state that took aggressive action early on to deal with the crisis and then saw a big spike when it reopened, leads the nation with 712,512 cases. In recent weeks, however, the number of new cases and hospitalizations appeared to be declining, local media reported.

While Trump has repeatedly praised his administration’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, the U.S. on Tuesday continued to lead the world in the number of reported cases with more than 6 million and nearly 185,000 deaths, according to the latest NBC News figures.

Also, the U.S. also accounts for almost a quarter of the 25.5 million cases and nearly 852,000 deaths worldwide, according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard.

  • The Florida Department of Health severed ties with Quest Diagnostics and accused the company of sitting on the results of some 75,000 tests the company had performed going all the way back to April. As a result, 4,000 previously unreported but confirmed COVID-19 cases have been added to Florida's already huge number of cases. “The law requires all COVID-19 results to be reported to DOH in a timely manner," Gov. Ron DeSantis said. "To drop this much unusable and stale data is irresponsible. I believe that Quest has abdicated their ability to perform a testing function in Florida that the people can be confident in." There was no immediate response from Quest. While Florida continues to report thousands of new cases (3,773 more on Monday, not including the Quest cases), DeSantis has pushed ahead with reopening most public schools over the objections of teachers and many parents. On Monday, Trump's newest pandemic adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, dismissed those concerns as "hysterical."
  • General Motors is donating two million more masks to Michigan's public schools. “This is great news for our students, educators and support staff who need access to face masks to protect themselves and their families,” said Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. “Until there is a vaccine, it’s crucial that all Michiganders continue to mask up, and we are working around the clock to ensure everyone has access to a mask." GM has already donated four million masks to the state that the automaker produced at its plant in Warren, just outside of Detroit, as part of the ongoing MI Mask Aid partnership. Also, GM and the Ford Motor Company have "fulfilled their commitments to manufacture tens of thousands of the breathing machines that have helped save the lives of COVID-19 patients across the country," the Detroit News reported. The automakers began producing ventilators in March when the pandemic was just beginning to take off and hospitals around the country were in desperate need of more.
  • Hillary Clinton says the pandemic "is exacerbating some of the most insidious and pervasive inequities women face" in a new article she wrote for The Atlantic. Women, who still do the bulk of the child-rearing and caregiving, "have lost their jobs at a higher rate than men since the onset of the virus," the former First Lady and presidential candidate wrote. "And we know that women will be less likely to return to paid employment than men, threatening what progress has been made toward equality in the workforce."
  • Newly-opened colleges and universities continued to report dozens of new cases. And almost all, public health experts say, are the result of students who fail to follow school directives and party without taking proper precautions. SUNY Oneonta in New York switched to all-remote classes after 245 students tested positive for the coronavirus and 44 were placed in quarantine. Auburn University in Alabama reported more than 500 students tested positive from Aug. 22 to Aug. 28, which is more than double the previous week's total of 202. At Western Carolina University in North Carolina, 17 students were placed in isolation after testing positive. The University of Alaska Fairbanks hockey team and several other student-athletes were placed in isolation after testing positive. Meanwhile, students at the University of Notre Dame were expected to resume classroom instruction in stages on Wednesday, two weeks after an eruption of COVID-19 clusters forced the school to switch to online learning. Most of the cases were reportedly traced to an off-campus party .