For his first school visit of the new year, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew chose P.S. 51, where teachers and students recently learned they were exposed to a toxic chemical.
The Bronx school abruptly relocated this summer in the wake of news that high levels of a toxic chemical had been detected at its former building. The new location, chosen just three weeks ago, is a stone building that until June housed a Catholic school. Now a sign for P.S. 51 sits atop a freshly-painted red front door.
As teachers around the city began sprucing up their classrooms and planning their first lessons, P.S. 51 teachers spent last week hauling supplies to their new building and reassuring families at an open house.
Moving “was a huge task. The teachers were working tirelessly last week,” said Eileen Bernstein, the UFT chapter leader who has taught at P.S. 51 for two decades.
Rick Romain, another P.S. 51 teacher, said he was grateful that the school was able to stay together instead of being dispersed across multiple sites. But he said there were some downsides to the move. “Some kids are a little afraid to get on the school buses,” he said. “Some parents are inconvenienced because they have to find a way to get to work.”
Mulgrew sat with teachers in the school’s basement cafeteria for close to an hour this morning. Speaking to reporters afterwards, Mulgrew repeated his criticism of the Department of Education for failing to test the school’s building, and 31 other sites, for trichloroethylene, a carcinogen.
“There is an obligation on behalf of the city to make sure that every school site is safe for children,” he said.
He said the union wants teachers who worked in the building, where students were said to frequently complain of headaches and breathing problems, to be monitored over time for medical conditions: “To not have that monitoring would be irresponsible.”
Mulgrew planned to continue his first-day-of-school tour this afternoon at Grady High School, which he chose because it was one of the first schools to undergo “transformation” as part of a federal program to improve low-performing schools last year (and also the school where he began his teaching career). He also has plans to visit a couple of schools in Washington Heights and PS 257 in Brooklyn on Thursday.
But he said his goal is primarily to listen, not to send a specific message to teachers.
“It’s about their concerns and needs—not what I have to say to them but what they have to say to me.”