You are reading

Memo Ordering NYC Schools to Keep Virus Cases Quiet Probed

The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology and South Bronx Preparatory in Mott Haven was closed in March after a student tested positive for the coronavirus. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

By Greg B. Smith, THE CITY
This story was originally published on 4/15/20 by THE CITY

The Special Commissioner for Investigations for city schools is probing the Department of Education’s bid to squelch coronavirus infection information in the chaotic days before schools were closed.

The investigation comes in response to a report by THE CITY revealing an internal memo advising school officials to not report cases of teachers or staff who tested positive for COVID-19 or were likely infected to the city Health Department.

Following the story, Councilmember Robert Holden (D-Queens) asked Special Commissioner for Investigations Anastasia Coleman to look into the origin of the memo — and whether it contributed to the spread of the virus within schools before Mayor Bill de Blasio reluctantly announced on March 15 that schools would be shuttered.

Councilman Bob Holden (Photo: City Council)

In an interview Tuesday with THE CITY, Holden said he believes the March 10 memo was intended to help cover up the scope of the spread of the virus within the city public education system to justify keeping schools open amid an avalanche of pressure.

“A lot of teachers were calling us and saying, ‘Why aren’t the schools closed? We have some staff who are infected,’” Holden recalled.
“This is the DOE’s M.O., this is how they operate. They were trying to cover up. They were saying to us, they want to cover this up, we don’t want to cause mass hysteria,” he said.

A Wave of Deaths

On March 30, SCI investigator Hector Rivera notified Holden, “I am assigned and investigating the allegations of negligence by the Department of Education, regarding the COVID-19 cases in the city schools.”

On Tuesday, Regina Gluzmanova, a SCI spokesperson, declined to discuss the investigation, stating, “SCI is in receipt of the Council Member’s letter and will not comment any further on an open investigation.”

The Department of Education confirmed this week that 50 public school staff, including 21 teachers, have died of COVID-19 illness since the pandemic hit the city.
As pressure mounted last month to shut the schools, de Blasio resisted the call, saying he feared the closure would hurt families who need their children to be in school while they’re working.

On March 4, THE CITY reported on a teacher who’d returned from a coronavirus hotspot in Italy and was displaying symptoms of the virus but couldn’t get tested. Days later de Blasio agreed that teachers, first responders and city health care workers with likely symptoms and travel histories should get tested.

At the time, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew criticized school officials for dragging their feet on testing teachers. As the days passed, Catholic schools closed, and one private school after another followed suit.

Then on March 10, with public schools still open, DOE management sent staff an internal memo advising them on how to handle the growing crisis. The memo specified that the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which was tracking the spread, should not be contacted.

“At the moment, there is no reason for any school to call DOHMH to report potential or confirmed cases,” the memo states. “DOHMH is receiving information…about positive test results strictly from laboratories. We can support our colleagues at DOHMH by keeping their phones clear to speak with laboratories.”

Richard A. Carranza. Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education (Photo: DOE)

‘An Abundance of Caution’

Confronted about this at a news conference, Chancellor Richard Carranza defended the memo, stating, “With increasing numbers of people coming out, what we don’t want to do is inundate the Department of Health with these cases.”

Five days later, de Blasio announced the shutdown.

“Look at how many staff have died,” Holden told THE CITY Tuesday. “Leaving these classrooms open for that many days was dangerous.”

On Tuesday, Miranda Barbot, a spokesperson for Carranza, said: “When school buildings were open, we received confirmations directly from the State Health Department, and our guidance ensured the city’s Department of Health’s lines remained open for New Yorkers.

“We immediately notified communities when there was a confirmed case by the State Health Department, which happened once, and out of an abundance of caution we closed six other sites that had self-reported cases.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

email the author: [email protected]
No comments yet

Leave a Comment
Reply to this Comment

All comments are subject to moderation before being posted.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Recent News

Popular places where you can watch the Super Bowl in Queens

Feb. 2, 2023 By Tammy Scileppi

Hey, football fans! Game time is fast approaching, and across the city and here in Queens, you can feel the excitement brewing as the two teams prepare to take the field on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 12. So, kick back and watch the big game, and don’t miss Rihanna’s exciting performance during halftime. 

NYPD’s Hate Crime Task Force investigating vandalism at Forest Hills church that has been targeted in the past

The NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force is investigating a case of criminal mischief at a Forest Hills house of worship in which a vandal threw a rock to intentionally damage its glass front door, according to authorities.

Police say that just before 4 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 29, police from the 112th Precinct were called to Grace Lutheran Church, located at 103-15 Union Tpke., after a man threw a rock and damaged the church’s front door.

Borough president hears from community members on budget needs throughout Queens

During a two-day public hearing on the mayor’s 2024 preliminary budget, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards Jr. listened to testimonies from 14 community board representatives, community stakeholders and members of the public on where the money should be spent in Queens. 

The public hearings were held both in-person and via Zoom on Monday, Jan. 30, and Tuesday, Jan. 31, at Queens Borough Hall. The testimonials will be used to develop the Queens Borough Board’s FY24 preliminary budget priorities in the coming weeks. 

‘He didn’t deserve to die’: Borough President Richards leads emotional candlelight vigil for Tyre Nichols

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards held a candlelight vigil for Tyre Nichols outside Queens Borough Hall Monday, Jan. 30 after Nichols’ death at the hands of police officers in Memphis, Tenn., made national headlines for the brutality in which the officers beat him.

Almost immediately after news broke about Nichols’ death, the Memphis police officers who beat him to death were fired and charged with murder. The police department released the body cam footage of the fatal beating on Jan. 27, but many people, including some at the vigil, have refused to watch it due to its extremely graphic nature.

BP launches new advisory panel for youth to become civically engaged in the future of Queens

In an effort to get more young people involved in civics, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards has created a new advisory panel known as the Youth and Young Adult Council to introduce the “youngest and fiercest” community advocates to both community service and organization.

Members of the advisory body will advocate concerns through means of community engagement by participating in one of two cohorts. The first will be made up of high school representatives between the ages of 13 and 17, while the second cohort will be comprised of young adults between the ages of 18 and 25.