Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Christina Veiga on April 13, 2020
After facing mounting pressure to disclose the toll of the coronavirus pandemic on the education department, officials announced Monday that 50 employees have died due to suspected cases, according to reports from family members.
The numbers reveal an immense loss within one of the city’s largest workforces, where communities are grieving remotely and will continue to feel the losses when schools reopen again. Among the victims are 22 paraprofessionals and 21 teachers, along with two administrators, two central department employees, a guidance counselor, a food service worker, and a facilities employee.
One of the deceased had been working at a Regional Enrichment Center, which the city opened to serve the children of frontline workers who don’t have any other childcare options.
Mayor Bill de Blasio called the death toll “painful.”
“This is about people who are beloved in their school communities and have done so much good, and now they’re gone,” he said at a coronavirus-related press conference Monday.
The education department will now disclose death figures weekly, a spokesperson said. The city is collecting the information “in order to effectively deploy crisis support through guidance counselors and social workers remotely and when school buildings reopen,” according to a statement.
The coronavirus has taken a particularly vicious toll on paraprofessionals, who represent just 19% of the workforce but more than 44% of deaths. The statistics mirror a stark reality across the city: that the virus has fallen disproportionately hard on low-income communities of color.
Paraprofessionals, who often work intimately alongside students with disabilities, earn salaries starting around $26,000. Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said paraprofessionals often belong to communities of color, but figures were not immediately available.
The tally, spanning March 16 through April 10, was based on reports from family members, officials said. They were not necessarily confirmed to be COVID-19 cases by the city health department. No names were released, and no details were given as to which schools the employees had worked in.
The numbers do not include school safety agents, who are employed by the police department.
Teachers and elected officials had blasted the education department in recent weeks for refusing to release information on the number of deaths within its ranks, as other public agencies have, including the police department and transit authority. On Friday, the teachers union announced its own figures, saying more than 40 had died, and launched a memorial website for members to honor their colleagues.
Educators who have been claimed by the virus include: Sandra Santos-Vizcaino, a third grade teacher in Brooklyn described as an “amazing hugger”; Dez-Ann Romain, a Brooklyn principal who “gave her entire self” to students who had struggled in traditional high school settings; and Rosario Gonzalez, a 91-year-old paraprofessional who rarely missed a day of work.
Liat Olenick, a Broklyn elementary school teacher, said educators fought to know the number of victims among their ranks to help them support each other and their students.
“We can’t just keep posting things on google classroom and not address the emotional [and] mental health needs of our families,” she said. “Kids are losing their teachers. We’re losing colleagues. We need support.”
Mulgrew, the union president, said that schools that lose teachers have had to ask other teachers to take on the affected class, or scatter the students among the remaining educators.
It is a “very traumatic” time as grief counselors are working in overdrive.
“It’s really a great challenge to do it remotely,” he said, “and our folks are swamped, completely swamped at this point.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.