Unionized teachers and their leaders have stepped up warnings of COVID-19 risks in schools, alleging on a new website dozens of safety violations on Long Island and statewide such as faulty ventilation systems and staffers reported working without masks.
The new website, launched this week by the New York State United Teachers union, identifies more than 60 school locations statewide, including four districts on the Island, where health and safety concerns are reported. Local districts identified are Eastport-South Manor, Freeport, Hempstead and Smithtown.
Administrators in local districts denied allegations of hazards, saying they worked closely with health officials to comply with state and local safety standards.
In announcing the new reporting system, known as the NYSUT COVID Tracker, state union president Andy Pallotta voiced hope the initiative would "elevate the voices of those who otherwise may go unheard." Officials added that union members posting on the site, nysutcovidtracker.org, would remain anonymous, to prevent potential reprisals. There is also a place on the site for parents/community members to post anonymously.
In Albany, a representative of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, Greg Berck, questioned the new reporting system's reliance on anonymous sources, saying it could "be manipulated to spread false information and needlessly scare people."
A disclaimer on the website notes "The information may contain errors or inaccuracies," and that the NYSUT "does not independently verify information provided and therefore cannot guarantee its accuracy or completeness."
Fresh concerns over school safety are surfacing at a time when COVID-19 cases generally are rising again in the Nassau-Suffolk region and nationwide. The Island's positivity rate in testing for coronavirus jumped to 3.5% Monday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office said Tuesday.
Recently, several districts have brought more students back to school full-time, causing teachers to question whether 6-foot social distance is being properly maintained in classrooms. Linda Wygonik, president of Eastport-South Manor's teacher union, said she worries about the safety of some students who now sit in classes facing each other, even with the added protection of plastic shields.
"We absolutely want to see our students in school," said Wygonik, who teaches special-education classes. "But we want our students and faculty safe."
The district's superintendent, Joseph Steimel, issued a statement describing safe schools as a top priority.
"We have had rigorous health protocols and cleaning practices in place in our buildings since the start of the school year," Steimel said. "In addition, the crucial collaborations we have with teachers and parents will help guide us in providing our student body with the best learning models for our community."
At the Jackson Annex School in Hempstead, some teachers' assistants did not consistently wear masks or observe a 6-foot distance from each other, according to one website post. In addition, air ducts allegedly went uncleaned. At Hempstead High School, a complainant reported that "many adults in this building are not doing their part to ensure safety."
A district spokesperson, Nicole Epstein, responded that an initial inquiry found the complaints were either "totally unfounded" or the complainant "misinformed."
"For example, mask wearing is always strictly enforced for all adults and students in our buildings and all student and staff work stations are separated by a distance of at least six feet and/or physical barriers are used in order to achieve proper social distancing," Epstein stated.
She added that air ducts in all schools had been thoroughly cleaned, that all classes had workable windows, and that portable air purifiers with high-tech filters were located throughout buildings.
Ventilation problems also were reported at Caroline G. Atkinson School in Freeport.
"Our older wing, built in 1947, has several workspaces with innefectice (sic) and very dirty ventilations systems," an informant wrote.
Kishore Kuncham, Freeport's superintendent, said he believed all ventilation systems districtwide were safe, despite aging buildings. Kuncham went on to describe some website posts as "misinformation."
"The well-being of our students and staff continues to be our highest priority," the schools chief added.
In Smithtown, a critic posted, "We need guidance and advocacy."
Mark Secaur, the Smithtown district's superintendent, responded in a message to Newsday, "We are working very closely with the Department of Health, our teachers as well as all of our staff members, to provide for a safe working and learning environment, and will continue to do so."