The 74 Interview: UFT’s Michael Mulgrew on Fighting City Hall, Teacher Resignations and How the Pandemic Has ‘Made us Stronger’

Michael Mulgrew (Getty Images)

Special Report: This is one in a series of articles, galleries and interviews looking back at two years of COVID-related learning disruptions, taking stock at what’s been lost — and where we go from here. Follow our coverage, and see our full archive of testimonials, right here

To mark 24 months since schools shut down because of COVID-19, The 74 spoke with parents, educators, researchers and students across the U.S. We are running some of these interviews in their entirety to give complete accounts of where we’ve been and where some think we’re going. 

Michael Mulgrew is president of the United Federation of Teachers, which became aware of COVID-19 before many parents and educators had even heard of it. The union repeatedly clashed with former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio over safety precautions and reopening schedules, but union leaders also took charge of some mitigation measures, such as testing school ventilation systems. In January, he spoke with The 74 about how a lack of planning for remote learning led to a “mad scramble” to provide services, the union’s efforts to offer comfort during the darkest, earliest days of the pandemic, and what he’s learned since.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Feb. 14 will be 700 days since most schools began closing. That number even took us by surprise. What’s your initial reaction to it?

Michael Mulgrew: It feels like 7,000 days.

What was the moment you realized everything changed? What were you doing before and after?

We had started tracking this during the Christmas holidays. We had some teachers who were in China then. We had them quarantine when they came back, and then we really started tracking it and talking to our own infectious disease doctors as it kept building. It then became like a fast track, like every day was like five days, and the pressure kept building. I didn’t realize I was so involved with so many fast decisions and changing information. I didn’t realize it until March 16th, the day after the New York City Public Schools closed. I was in my car driving around the city and I was shocked that the streets were empty. That’s when I realized it wasn’t science fiction. 

What decisions do you remember having to make in the first weeks after schools closed?

The hardest thing was, how do we set up? How do we get the equipment that teachers need? How do we get them trained? We hadn’t done anything. There was a small pilot of what you would call a virtual learning program involving, literally, like 15 teachers. That was it for the entire city.

It was a mad scramble to get everyone trained quickly on how to get their classrooms up, then going through how do we teach parents how to help their kids. It was non-stop. It was hundreds of decisions every day trying to figure things out, moving people from place to place. Even though everything was closed, we were still moving stuff like laptops and iPads, trying to get them to our members’ houses so they had something to work off. 

[In another sense], there was no preparation. The mayor had resolved never to close the schools, so he would not allow the Department of Ed to put any contingency plans in place. On the Friday before the schools closed, at 3:00, the mayor would be banging on the table saying he was going to keep the schools open, and that Sunday afternoon he closed the schools. So we were completely unprepared. Just trying to get up any sort of virtual remote system was really difficult because there was no planning or training.

What has been the darkest part of the pandemic for you?

We were one of the last school systems to close, even though we’re in New York City, which at that point was ground zero. We had to fight to close the school system. It was a big, ugly fight, especially that last week. We set up a virtual executive board to meet every Monday night, so we could all keep our communications up, and I had to read the names of our members who passed away. I had to make the phone calls to those families. We lost a lot of members, and I always think that if we could have closed earlier, how many more would we not have lost.

What do you feel hopeful about now?

The people. I saw people who were absolutely afraid still figure out a way to get up and get moving. There was no book on how you do remote learning. There will be now.

I watched teachers start mailing supplies to each one of their children’s houses and figuring out different ways to get the children engaged. I did town halls with parents. I started in the middle of April [2020], and the parents were crying with me, telling me, “I always knew that my child’s teacher cared about my kids, but I never realized they really loved them.” The teachers were saying the same things: “I’ve gotten to know my students’ entire family and they’re beautiful people.”

That’s the stuff that gives me hope, because when people had to connect, they started connecting in those ways. They really helped each other get through what was probably the darkest time of this pandemic

What’s one thing you think no one has understood about you or about unions since the beginning of school closures? 

The whole time it was about protecting the school and that means us and the children. We had to fight to close our schools, and then we had to fight to open our schools. We never said no. We always said we wanted to open the schools, but at that point, we had learned that we’re not gonna listen to doctors unless they’re independent. Thankfully, we were able to get access to that, and our doctors designed a plan for us to open schools safely.

We all know pandemic information changes all the time. We should have opened on time last year, but the mayor didn’t understand that it was real for us. We were going to do it the right way, because we weren’t going to subject ourselves or our students and their families to any more danger for going to school. The last thing we wanted was people sick because they went to school or putting their lives or their families’ or their school communities’ lives in jeopardy. Basically, 35 percent of the parents felt comfortable with their child going to school. This is over a year ago. Thankfully it’s much much higher than that now.

Every school in New York City ended up with a group of four or five teachers who actually set their school up, put up the signs, did all the training of the other teachers on how to do certain things — how to wear their masks, how to fit them properly, how to direct the children, what to do when they’re eating and how you do your spacing, and getting kids in and out and on and off the bus. There were over 3,000 volunteers who did that and trained their schools to do it. Nobody talks about that stuff. There was no pay involved. It’s not in our contract. It was just: If we want to be safe and we want our schools open, we have to do this. And they went and did it.

Ventilation. Oh my God. We actually were able to fix ventilation. I’ll never forget last winter. The buildings were built after the last pandemic. They have these really big windows. They actually were built that way so you could open them to keep ventilation in case there was another pandemic. That literally became part of the code for schools after the pandemic of 1918. For a period of time, the teachers kept opening up the windows the whole way and it’s like 7 degrees out. So we had to produce this video for all the teachers about, “No, you don’t have to do that. You only have to open like half the windows about 3 inches each and you’ll be fine.” This year, one of the first cold days in January, I was in a school, and one of the teachers had the windows open a large way. And I’m looking at the windows and she touched my arm, and she goes, “I know I don’t have to open it that much, but my team teacher for 20 years died of COVID a year ago.” I said, “You keep that window open anyway you want.”

Describe a moment when you felt you were getting conflicting guidance or instructions. What did you end up doing and why?

The opening of this year was probably the most frustrating because once again everyone thinks we’re getting through the pandemic. We go from 6 feet to 3 feet [social distancing]. We opened the schools last year. We had no vaccines. We went back into work; we did what we needed to do. Now, the vaccines are available. Everybody wants schools back open. We agree. And then all of a sudden, the New York City Department of Health starts issuing new guidance. Three feet is no longer 3 feet. Three feet basically becomes 18 inches. And then, you fight, you fight, you fight.

Even in the beginning, I’ll never forget having meetings where the city doctors are telling us, “It’s gonna be nothing but a cold …and the schools could remain open. The kids are gonna be fine. They’re not gonna get it and we’ll create herd immunity and we’ll be safer faster than everybody else.” Literally, that’s the conversation we were having with the mayor and his doctors. And our doctors are saying to us the absolute opposite. They said, “Listen, children might not be getting it at this point in time, but this is a serious virus, and people are gonna die.”

That was probably the big conflict, that first one.

Do we understand what works in virtual learning better than we did two years ago? Why or why not?

We never said it was going to be the be-all-and-end-all. It was always a way for us to keep in contact, to keep our students engaged. Through that March and the end of that school year, it really was more of a lifeline between teachers and students and their families. Remember, nobody was leaving their house or apartment. There was no such thing as a school day at that point. Teachers would be teaching at 6:00 in the morning. Teachers would be teaching at 8:00 at night. Teaching was all over the place. They did whatever they needed to do to reach the parents, especially the younger children when the parent could be there.

The following year is where you learn a little bit more about it. For 65 percent of those students, the parents said their child is going to work remotely. We never should have had each teacher [figuring out remote learning] on their own. We thought it should have been a more centralized process, deploying the best practices we know. But the department still felt — because I gotta be honest, they just didn’t want to manage it — it’s better off to just let every teacher in school do their own thing.

We’ve learned a lot. One of the things we found out is the majority of students really do regress in a remote setting, which we completely expected. There was a small percentage of students who actually thrived in remote. So to me as a teacher, that says there’s something there we have to look at, because if these students who were not doing well when they were going to school — and there’s all sorts of different reasons for that — all of a sudden did really well in a remote setting, we have to look at this going into the future.

But this is not an online college course. That’s what everyone always thought: “We’ll put the camera in the middle of the classroom.” It does not work in K-12 education.

How has this crisis changed your union? 

It’s made us stronger. We communicate better than we ever did before. We’re using technology in ways that it probably would have taken us a decade to get to. We started doing these virtual town hall things. There was no such thing in any union before. It was always, “You’re a union, you have to come in person.” There were 17,000 and 23,000 and 28,000, then over 30,000 people — there would just be massive town halls with the members. It really was comforting to all of us. That was comforting to me as their president.

We don’t have all the answers, and let’s just all be there for each other and we’re doing the best we can. That’s when we we decided — it was probably in the middle of May after we first shut down — we’re going to do three things: We want to open our schools again, we’ll never listen to any doctors on anyone’s payroll again, and we’ll fight like hell to make sure that we’re doing what the independent doctors tell us to do. 

Did you ever feel like quitting or think of quitting?

Of course I did, and I think most people in this profession thought of quitting throughout this thing. There were some really, really tough times. The only way out of this is to go through it, and I don’t think any of us expected it to go on this long.

In the beginning, we lost close to 100 members, and then over the next year, we did go over 100. That was really difficult, because everyone thinks, “What else could I have done?” Thankfully, we were able to really use the power of our union to try to get the families support. Remember, we also represent over 3,000 private sector nurses who work in hospitals. We set up a food delivery service for them because no one was doing anything for them at that point. At downtown NYU Langone [hospital] and Staten Island University Hospital South — you would go there and they would get their food and you would see what they were going through. They’re like, “We gotta be in [the hospital]. We gotta do what we have to do for these patients.” I saw the same thing happening with the teachers when I’m on Zooms with them and on town halls. [They would say], “This is tough. No one prepared us for this, but could you help me get [something for my students]? This will help. There’s a child I can’t reach because he lives with his grandmother.” That’s what fueled me.

What would you tell yourself 700 days ago, if you could go back in time, given what we know now? 

Trust the members at all times, the members and the parents. Just keep standing up and fight, fight, fight as hard as hell on everything you know once you get the information. You need to just keep your head down and keep swinging. Like in any crisis, there’ve been some really good people who have stepped up in all sorts of ways. Have faith in people who dedicate their lives to either health care or education. Anytime there’s a problem or I’m in a foxhole, I want to be with those people. 

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