Safety strike over building-related COVID-19 concerns avoided at Hunter College


Hunter College Catalog

Amanda Salazar, Editor-in-Chief

A safety strike among teachers was narrowly avoided Sept. 29 at the Hunter College Campus Elementary and High School, when the administration agreed to allow an independent safety investigation of the school buildings.

The elementary and high school are public schools located on the campus of CUNY Hunter College, one of the 25 colleges within the city’s public university system.

The K-12 schools, referred to as HCCS, are both run by CUNY and not the Department of Education. As a result, HCCS teachers are represented by CUNY’s professor and staff union, the Professional Staff Congress, instead of the United Federation of Teachers.

But just like DOE schools, HCCS schools were originally slated to begin in-person blended instruction Sept. 29, with the older grades starting on Oct. 1. Class sizes have been reduced because of COVID-19.

This past week, HCCS teachers demanded that the school administration allow for an independent safety investigation of the school buildings. Hunter College President Jennifer Raab and HCCS Director Lisa Siegman pushed back, claiming that such a thing is against CUNY policy.

The teachers claimed that their classrooms have no windows, which stops them from having the ability to let outside air come in through an open window and circulate the air in the classrooms. They have requested smaller classroom pods and an investigation to determine if it actually was safe for them and their students to come back to school.

Our reporters attempted to find the CUNY policy that prohibits independent organizations from investigating campus properties but were unable to do so.

When Raab and Siegman told the teachers and staff that they were not willing to conduct a safety investigation and break CUNY policy, HCCS teachers, with the backing of the entire PSC, threatened to strike if the administrators didn’t change their minds.

On Sunday, 85% of HCCS voted to authorize PSC to call a safety strike on the campus.

“The 85 percent vote shows that the Hunter Campus Schools teachers are united in their willingness to endure a strike because they believe that their safety and the safety of their students is more important than anything else,” PSC President Barbara Bowen said. “What the teachers want is to be back in the classroom with the students they love—but in classrooms that are safe. There is a long history of safety problems in this building. We hope everything has now been addressed, but teachers, parents and children need an inspection they can trust. The union leadership is doing everything we can to ensure that safety is protected without needing to strike. We believe the issue can be resolved and that CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez wants to find a resolution. We are ready to negotiate around the clock to reach an agreement.”

Before striking began, however, the CUNY administration decided to allow an independent safety investigation to be conducted, and the investigation found that the buildings were safe enough for classes to begin.

“I am happy to be able to wish the faculty of the Hunter College Campus Schools a great first day of inperson classes tomorrow,” Bowen said yesterday. “And I hope you will join me in congratulating them on their successful campaign to protect the safety of students, families, faculty and staff.”

This situation was not the first time that HCCS teachers conflicted with administration this month. Back in early September, according to the PSC, the administrators told parents and staff that high-efficiency particulate air filters, which trap air particles at a high rate, had been installed in all the classrooms.

The administration also misrepresented a memo from the school’s HVAC contractor as a report from an independent authority.

In an email to Bowen from Sept. 15, Raab claimed that HEPA filters were installed in all classrooms, that class sizes had been reduced, set out hand sanitizing stations and mandated mask usage for all who enter the buildings.

At the time the announcement was made, however, the HEPA filters had actually not been installed, and Raab and Siegman refused to get them installed for real. According to PSC, the union took CUNY to court over the matter and won, resulting in a court mandate for the installation of HEPA filters.

“CUNY yesterday lead a courtesy walkthrough of the 94th St. building that included representatives from the PSC Chapter, CUNY Central Office, Hunter College and a health and safety specialist from the American Federation of Teachers,” CUNY spokesperson Frank Sobrino told Kings County Politics yesterday. “They corroborated what we have been saying all along: That the school is ready and safe for occupancy. We are excited about classes in the elementary school starting as planned today and in the high school Thursday as scheduled. Today we turn our attention to doing what we are all committed to: Ensuring the academic continuity of our students while securing the safety of all members of the school community.”

Just eight days later, 113 of the 128 teachers at HCCS voted online with PSC on Sept. 22. Ninety-six percent voted “No Confidence” in Raab and 73% voted “No Confidence” in Siegman.

“We want to return to in-person teaching in buildings that have been proven safe with adequate health and safety protocols and an independent inspection,” Chair of the HCCS chapter of PSC and Hunter College Campus High School teacher Tina Moore told PSC. “But the results of the vote show we are united in our fight to protect the health and lives of our coworkers and students. We are holding our school leadership accountable to their legal and moral obligation to provide a safe workplace.”

City Council Member Keith Powers, who represents the district that Hunter College and HCCS are in, was relieved to hear that the investigation will commence.

“Students, teachers, and educators should be assured safety in schools,” he said. “I am glad to see that is the case at Hunter.”

Editor’s Note: This story was first published in New York County Politics and The Ticker has permission to republish it here.