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Teachers’ Unions Staggered By Long Island’s COVID-19 Infection Rate Exceeding 9%

School Sanitation
Charlie Neibergall
An employee sanitizes classroom surfaces.

Some public school teachers in New York City demanded over the weekend that in-person learning shut down as the COVID-19 positivity level in the city has risen above 9% in recent days. Now Long Island teachers are also coming to terms with its region’s high positivity rate.

J.D. Allen, WSHU: Joining me now is Rich Haase, a spokesperson for Long Island Teachers, a coalition of over 100 teachers’ unions in the region. Thanks for joining WSHU's C19 podcast, Rich.

Rich Haase: Thank you, JD.

JDA: The 7-day COVID-19 positivity rate on Long Island has exceeded 9%. This weekend. The highest it's been since the spring, Suffolk County has been over 9% for at least four days now.

Do Long Island teachers unions want in person learning to be put on hold?

RH: It's a good question. I think it's a hard question to answer. Just with one simple yes or no. I think that since we reopened in September, there have been a lot of teachers who've been scared to return back to work. I think a lot of people were scared to kind of return to parts of society that exposes them to hundreds or thousands of people. You know, it's in September and October, I feel like, you know, the numbers were pretty low. And it was easier to feel safe enough... back then. I think since Thanksgiving, we've watched the numbers creep up. And, and with those numbers increasing, people are increasingly fearful, you know, and concerned about their safety when they come in. I do think that there are probably a lot of people who think, alright, you know, we should switch to remote learning now we know how to do it. And it's a better choice than risking people's safety and their health. But we get it, we know that it's not an easy thing to do in terms of what it means for communities in terms of what it means for families, and for student learning. But I think that there's a lot of people who feel like we've hit that we've kind of hit that threshold. And they need to make sure that no one's getting unnecessarily sick or hospitalized.

JDA: What do you say to teachers that are concerned?

RH: I think most teachers do understand. I think people recognize that there are real challenges to closing school. I don't think it's all made up. I don't think it's all political. But I also do think that people recognize that it is at least a little bit political. We know that kids learn better when they're in school, right? We know that communities function better that parents can go to work and other aspects of society can remain open when schools are open. And none of those things are made up. Right. So I don't think teachers think they're made up or they're exaggerated, or they're not with merit or anything like that. We completely get it. And we've been plugging through this for however long it is.

I do think that at some point, though, the elected leaders need to kind of say like what's, you know, people need to define what acceptable risk is, right? If your infection rates are 0.5%, you know, it makes sense to keep schools open for all the good that they do and being open, right? But at what point do we cross the line and say, all right, there's too great a chance that people can actually get sick. You know, when we put 1,800 kids in a building or 1,100 kids in the building, we need to kind of regroup and pull people back into their homes a little bit. So I think what, what teachers get, and part of it is from having all of these conversations, but I think what we all get, but maybe don't always articulate Is it like, at some point someone needs to decide really what that number is for in terms of acceptable risk.

There were there have been efforts, you know, that I think that the state has released, you know, its own micro cluster and its own strategies and, you know, kind of ways of deciding when schools should take certain types of action. But it seems like when we hit those thresholds, those actions aren't always it's not that they're not directed within the schools. I think districts are really trying to do the best they can. I think it's largely outside I think it's forces like in, in local government and in state government that kind of keep pulling back and kind of moving the end zone if that's a good fair way to put it.

JDA: For context, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's micro-cluster strategy back in October, laid out that a 7-day COVID-19 positivity rate of 9% for 10 days would require schools to close. In December, his administration added criteria to include hospitalization rate and hospital bed capacity to the list of requirements for a region to close. That's because Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker says that students are safest in the classroom, rather than at home.

As a spokesperson for the teachers unions, is the concern that teachers would be then picking up the virus and bringing it into their own homes.

RH: Right. And first of all, obviously, we want everyone to be safe, right? So to say that, you know, we're concerned about teachers getting sick, doesn't take anything, obviously away from us, we don't want to see kids spreading and either.

I do understand the doctor's point that you know, kids are safe in school. I think safe is probably might be a better word than safest. To suggest that someone is more safe in a school than they are in their home, I think wouldn't be wouldn't be realistic. But yeah, we are concerned we have, you know, in our district alone, you know, probably 300-400 people who are over 55, who are working. We have many people who've got who are at high risk, who have heart disease, who are cancer survivors. So yeah, there's definitely there's definitely that concern that if the virus comes into schools that, you know, you're increasing the likelihood of the chances that people are going to become infected.

We have been told and kind of we remain hopeful that it isn't being spread within schools. But again, you know, the question becomes, is the word safer is the word safe. So I can believe in, especially through September and October, that schools are relatively safe. And I still believe that they're safe, although the more people who come into them with the virus that makes sense to believe that they become less safe, right? But I still think, you know, there's definitely a point to be made that people are safest at home. But we get it, you know, there's a trade off there, we understand.

But for someone to a teacher to become hospitalized, or to God forbid, you know, die as a result of COVID, especially if it was contracted through work when there were ways for them to work remotely. We don't want that to happen, right? I think people are trying to get as much normal school under their belt as they can, before having to make any hard decisions. But, you can't undo that kind of mistake.

Rich Haas is a spokesperson for Long Island Teachers.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.