Gotham Gazette

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New York Needs Leaders Who Think School Safety is Important

classroom covid

Kids and teachers safe in school (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if we had a mayor who thought school safety was important. Bill de Blasio didn’t, or he wouldn’t have placed the ridiculous plan we’ve had since September into effect. Eric Adams doesn’t, or he wouldn’t have rubber-stamped the ‘doubling’ of the anemic de Blasio plan.

Here’s the problem. You can say we’re testing 10%, 20%, or whatever percentage you choose for covid, but it’s not a real figure unless you’re talking about everyone. Right now, we are planning to PCR test only 20% of those students who have opted in to be tested. De Blasio, anxious to keep covid stats low in any manner possible, had students opt in rather than out of testing. Not only that, but out of that pool, we’re only going to test the students who step up on any given day. 

If I don’t believe in vaccines, if I don’t believe in science, or if I don’t believe in COVID-19, forget about me, let alone my kid. If I don’t believe one minute of any class should be missed, ever, I’m not giving permission for my kid to be tested, and I’m not getting tested either (and I may very well send my sick child into school). If I don’t feel like walking downstairs where they’re getting tested, I’m out too. How many teenagers feel they’re unlikely to have serious symptoms, so can’t and won’t be bothered to get tested? (After all, teens know everything, as any parent or teacher of one can attest.)

So what are we really getting 20% of? It’s hard to say, but what we haven’t got is a representative sample. As a high school teacher in an overcrowded Queens school, I will be part of the 20%, because I think my safety and that of others is more important than anything else our school has to offer. People like me, though, take every precaution in trying to protect ourselves and others. We wear quality masks, always, when we’re indoors outside of our homes. We did this even when laws and places of business didn’t require it. We got vaccinated (and boosted) when eligible. And we test regularly. To keep everyone safe.

If Mayor Adams or Governor Kathy Hochul were serious about protecting over a million people who go to New York City schools each day — and everyone else those people then come into close contact with — they wouldn’t endorse this charade. They’d say we’re testing  at least 20% of everyone in each school, every week. They’d say if you don’t want to take the test, stay home. Would it be inconvenient for parents to have their kids home? Would it be inconvenient for me not to receive a paycheck? You bet it would. 

There are serious consequences for shirking public safety. If I don’t feel like keeping my students safe, the state has every right to get rid of me and find someone who will. And if I don’t feel like my kid should be part of that effort, then my kid ought not to be in school with others who will take part in protecting one another. We already do this by requiring a suite of vaccines for students to attend schools.

It’s particularly egregious that we haven’t enacted such a testing program in pre-K and 3-K, where kids are not even eligible to be vaccinated. How can we not make an extra effort to identify young students with covid, particularly given pediatric cases and hospitalizations have jumped significantly?

Representative PCR testing, in fact, is the very least we would do if we were serious about keeping people safe. If we wanted to do the very best we could for our kids and one another, we’d require vaccination of absolutely everyone who attends our schools. We already require multiple vaccinations. Why not this one too?

How did public health become a political hot potato? It’s ridiculous beyond belief that we’re still arguing about whether or not eligible people should be vaccinated. It’s time for Eric Adams and Kathy Hochul to show leadership and stand up to people who’d risk the health of our population so as to indulge outlandish conspiracy theories.

You don’t need to be the Oracle of Delphi to predict the cost of negligence. Covid has been exploding for weeks, and it’s on us to reverse that pattern rather than encourage it. My wife, in Spanish, sometimes says, “Common sense is the least common of all the senses.”

Nowhere is that better personified than in the short-sighted, self-congratulatory, borderline meaningless gestures of our new mayor and governor. They must correct these dangerous policies now.

Arthur Goldstein is an ESL teacher at Francis Lewis High School, and a UFT executive committee member. On Twitter @TeacherArthurG.

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