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Teachers’ union seeks more COVID testing in schools

Students returned to school in Dunkirk in February following a two-week remote fully program. OBSERVER Photo by Jo Ward

New York State United Teachers today called for school districts to ramp up COVID testing efforts for students and staff as many explore ways to bring more students back for in-person instruction for the remainder of the school year.

Joined at a virtual press conference by the American Federation of Teachers and local education unions, the National Football League Players Association and the Rockefeller Foundation, NYSUT called on districts to look to effective testing strategies for New York City schools, SUNY and the NFL as models they can adopt best practices from in creating or expanding their own testing programs. The union also is calling for federal and state funding to implement testing.

“Educators want to be in the classroom with their students, but they want to do that safely. Identifying asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 in particular is critical to bolstering school safety plans,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said. “Yet far too few districts have a testing regimen up and running. That is unacceptable. If the nation’s largest school district, the nation’s largest university system and the nation’s biggest professional sport can do it, there’s no reason we can’t figure out how to implement testing for schools statewide.”

In a February poll of NYSUT members outside New York City, 74 percent of educators said their district is not doing any regular testing. Only 18 percent said testing of some students and staff is happening regularly, and just 2 percent said their districts are testing most students and staff.

The union’s call comes as many school districts are considering or already are bringing more students back for in-person instruction in school buildings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s February reopening guidance not only made clear the importance of mask wearing, social distancing and other mitigation strategies, in doing so it noted that routine testing can help detect new cases and prevent outbreaks and reduce risk of further transmission.

“A robust testing infrastructure is one of the single most valuable tools we have to stop the spread of COVID-19 and reopen our school buildings for in-person learning safely and equitably,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said. “Our friends across professional sports, television programming and other critical industries have taught us that with regular, reliable testing, we can identify COVID outbreaks — including an early warning sign of asymptomatic carriers and spreaders — and drastically reduce the number of infections in a given place. Testing must be a regular part of our school reopening strategy across New York and nationwide, and that requires a commitment to the science and the resources to bring full and regular testing protocols directly to public schools to keep students, educators and school staff safe.”

For New York’s public colleges and universities, SUNY adopted a number of COVID-19 testing measures and safety guidelines for students and on-campus faculty and staff, including baseline and surveillance testing, wearing masks in public areas and social distancing standards, and pushing for the most liberal interpretation of a telecommuting agreement between UUP and the state that allows employees who can do so to work from home.

“Going back to last spring, UUP has been outspoken over the absolute need for baseline and consistent surveillance COVID testing for our members working on campus,” United University Professions President Frederick E. Kowal said. “Many of the guidelines proposed by UUP are now part of the campus safety protocols adopted by SUNY. I am certain that these measures protected our members and saved lives. Like our pre-K-12 colleagues, UUP supports reopening our schools, as long as proper safety measures are in place to protect students, teachers and staff. UUP strongly supports mandatory COVID testing mandates to protect our colleagues in primary and secondary education.”

NYSUT is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.

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