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Coronavirus Fears Stoke Strike Talk; City Decides to Push Back Return to Schools

New York, NY – The MORE Movement, a collective of UFT members, associates of school communities and their allies, held an emergency meeting this past weekend to discuss authorizing a possible teachers strike due to safety concerns surrounding Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to reopen schools during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Martina Meijer, one of the educators taking part in last week’s emergency meeting, speaks out ahead of the Sept. 10 reopening of schools, which has now been slightly pushed back.

Over 1,000 people logged onto the virtual event, which proved to be successful. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio has since announced that city public schools will reopen on Sept. 21, instead of Sept. 10, and teachers will have until Sept. 15, to work out school lesson plans and adjust to new guidelines on Tuesday. 

“We tried to use the avenues that already existed,” said Martina Meijer about delaying partial in-person classes scheduled for Sept. 10 for public kindergarten to high school classes. “There is a saying that ‘when you feel helpless, help someone. When you feel powerless, take up power.’”

When trying to figure out ways to draw attention to her concerns about her District 22 school reopening, it took collaborating with another teacher to combine their efforts to request time with their union chapter leader.

“It was more impactful that there were two of us [at a District 22 meeting] and the [chapter leader] was able to send some staff members to our principal who shared our concerns,” said Meijer. “We asked the union to be the union we want it to be, not the place where complacency will reign.”

At MORE, lesser experienced members are working with more experienced individuals to prepare for a possible strike. 

“My partner is a science teacher and he drew me pictures of that curve [in March] before I even saw it in the news,” said Mary Maddox, a teacher at the Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem. “It felt like a train heading off the track. Then de Blasio said, ‘We are going back,’ and I panicked.”

When the city initially expected teachers to return to work in late winter, Maddox and a skeleton crew of other teachers planned a sick out. But as the gravity of COVID-19 became clear, the state government decided to issue a government shutdown for March 15. 

Now, Maddox is concerned about the mayor’s “blended” reopening plans.

“We had a lot of hard working staff members working on the opening team, but they were working with these trash choices,” said Maddox. “I expressed gratitude for the work they were doing, but I said, ‘Hey I think we can push for a little bit more here.’”

Maddox, along with other members of MORE’s caucus, pushed for medical accommodations; surveyed teachers about going back to campuses and their school leadership, and they wrote letters to parents and families about their apprehensions. 

“The only response we got back from parents has been positive,” said Maddox. “They said, ‘Thank you so much for telling us. Thank you so much for respecting us. We stand with you.’”

By working with the MORE Caucus, teachers and their allies were able to draw the attention of both active and non-active UFT chapter leaders, and gather enough members in different committees to prepare to authorize a strike. 

“Then the UFT started talking strike,” said Maddox. “By that time we already had core leaders and activists already engaged in that action and we put together a strike team. Those folks will meet on Monday.”

A Health Justice meeting was held on Monday at 6:30 p.m. and school districts 13 to 15 and 17 to 19 held organizational meetings earlier in the day. 

School District 15 in Brooklyn had plans to rally and march at Cobble Hill Park on Tuesday at 11:30 a.m.

“New York City school leaders are among the most talented and dedicated in the world, and if given adequate time, resources, and discretion, they will do everything in their power to keep their communities safe and provide students with the high quality education they deserve,” said Council of School Supervisors & Administrators President Mark Cannizzaro. “The task before us is still monumental, so it is incumbent on the DOE to seize this time in support of school leaders so that these additional days will provide a much needed opportunity to implement necessary safety protocols, program classes, and align all school staff towards critical goals for this unimaginable school year.”

State Sen. John Liu (D-Bayside) also backed the decision to delay reopening. 

“This decision is very late, but, nonetheless, welcome because City Hall is finally working together with teachers, principals, and other school staff without whom the schools cannot possibly educate our kids,” said Liu. “Many parents, students, teachers and school staff want schools to be re-opened, but done so safely. The determination that schools are safe cannot simply be a decree by Mayor de Blasio, especially given his history with his own Health Department. Thankfully there is now agreement on how to prepare for school re-opening and for ongoing cleaning and monitoring to maintain safety for school kids, teachers and all school staff.”

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