UPPER EAST SIDE, NY — Teachers and parents denounced the Hunter College Campus Schools' reopening plan in a protest Wednesday outside the fortresslike school building, alleging that administrators will put staff at risk by refusing to include coronavirus safety measures in place at every other school in the city.
Staff say that Hunter will be the only public school in New York City to reopen for in-person classes next week without random coronavirus testing of students and teachers, inspections of ventilation systems in each room and contact tracing of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
They say administrators have claimed the school is exempt from the citywide reopening standards announced in a deal with the United Federation of Teachers this month because the K-12 school, affiliated with Hunter College, is run by CUNY, rather than the Department of Education — the only school in the city with such an arrangement.
Social studies teacher and union vice-chair Irving Kagan said teachers have tried since June to be included in the decision-making process leading up to the Sept. 21 reopening, as was required by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, only to be stonewalled by administrators. The plan presented to staff last month included no input from teachers, Kagan said.
Staff were taken aback by the details of the plan, which lacked commitments to test, contact trace, conduct room-by-room ventilation inspections and limit class sizes to 12 students, among other city standards.
"We were astonished when we got a response back saying: CUNY does one thing, DOE does another thing, they’re two different organizations," Kagan said, referring to a Sept. 8 email from Campus Schools Director Lisa Siegmann, which was shared with Patch.
In particular, staff are raising alarms about the Hunter building, built to resemble an armory and known as "the brick prison" for its lack of windows. The building has been plagued by ventilation problems since long before COVID-19, but staff say administrators refused their requests to hire an independent inspector to examine the system, as the city has done for roughly 1,500 school buildings.
Instead, teachers say, the school only provided a memo prepared by a contractor who had been hired to replace the school's faulty HVAC system over the summer, which deemed the building safe. Staff commissioned their own critical review of the school's report, calling it light on details and noting that it fails to mention the COVID-19 pandemic at all.
Barbara Bowen, President of the CUNY staff union, said at Wednesday's protest that Hunter President Jennifer Raab informed staff the previous day that an independent inspector hired by the union would not be allowed into the school building.
A majority of Hunter teachers have signed onto a list of demands calling on the school to abide by the DOE standards, math teacher and union chapter chair Tina Moore said Wednesday. A similarcirculated by Hunter parent Juliana Sohn and sent to Raab Wednesday garnered 392 signatures.
"We have argued that school start remotely so that CUNY can prioritize the students' and the teachers' health," Moore said. "It simply has not shown the evidence that the facilities that they propose to use are properly ventilated."
In a statement, Hunter spokesperson Deborah Raskin defended the reopening plan and said that "Hunter College and CUNY would never put the safety of our faculty, staff or students in jeopardy."
To reduce density in the main building, some students will attend class at Hunter's Silberman School of Social Work in East Harlem, Raskin said. She said the school will mandate social distancing, conduct daily health screenings and add hand sanitizing stations.
Raskin said the school had also installed HEPA filters in classrooms in both buildings, as well as UV lights and MERV-13 filters.
School staff, though, say they've been presented with no evidence that HEPA filters were installed — only an air purifier that was deemed inadequate by Jean Grassman, a CUNY professor and occupational health expert brought on by the staff union.
Kagan, who graduated from Hunter himself before returning as a teacher, said it feels like administrators are "sending us out to fly this airplane they’re building even as we speak."
"We don’t even recognize the school that we have labored at for 10, or 20, or 30 years," he said.
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