July 23, 2020

A Q&A With NYSUT and AFT Leaders on Reopening K-12 Schools

reopening schools

The health and safety of NYSUT members and their students is the statewide union’s top priority. With so much uncertainty around reopening plans for September, many questions remain about what can be done to protect members and their loved ones.

To provide some clarity, NYSUT hosted a webinar in late July featuring NYSUT President Andy Pallotta, AFT President Randi Weingarten, the other NYSUT officers and senior staff, to address member-submitted questions about K-12 school reopenings.

“I know that many members are frightened — you don’t want to have to choose between your job and your life,” said Pallotta. “We will continue to demand that state guidelines are followed, and will explore all possible actions to push back, starting with legal ones.

“NYSUT is a powerful union — we will be relentless on behalf of the members we serve statewide,” said Pallotta.

Visit NYSUT’s Reopening Schools landing page for more information.

Read on for a compilation of questions and answers from the event.

1. I’m a cancer survivor and immunocompromised. I don’t feel safe going back to in-person instruction. What are my options — using sick time, the Family Medical Leave Act, or are there other possibilities?

If you have a disability, and can still perform your job duties, you can ask your administration for a reasonable accommodation. That could mean, for instance, additional personal protective equipment, remote work or increased social distancing. And, if you have a disability and COVID-19 makes you more vulnerable, you can ask for new or additional accommodations. Have a conversation with your employer about reasonable accommodations. You should also check your collective bargaining agreement. Some include benefits that go beyond these accommodations. Check with your local leader for details.

If you have a serious health condition, you could be entitled to leave under the FMLA. Since several members might have reopening health concerns, NYSUT encourages locals to create a triage process to manage member inquiries. That way local leaders can pass along requests to the employer and streamline the inquiry process.

Additionally, under the DOH guidelines, district plans must include policies regarding vulnerable populations, including students, faculty and staff who are at increased risk for severe COVID-19 illness, and individuals who may not feel comfortable returning to an in-person educational environment, to allow them to safely participate in educational activities and, where appropriate, accommodate their specific circumstances.

Visit the NYSUT webpage for a list of workplace accommodation resources.

2. Is the six-foot social distancing mandate set in stone, or only when possible? Does it require six feet between desks?

The NYS Department of Health’s guidelines are clear — six feet of social distancing and a mask are required for the safety of students, families, educators and our communities since COVID-19 is an airborne virus. It’s not negotiable. We realize it won’t be perfect, such as when students pass one another in the halls or ride on a bus, but we know from Dr. Fauci and other medical professionals, that six feet of social distancing and wearing a mask are fundamental to keeping everyone safer.

3. Nothing that we need to protect ourselves from the virus is free. And if remote instruction continues, I’m concerned about equity — many students and staff don’t have the equipment they need. How are we supposed to pay for all of this?

The HEROES Act, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in May, is critical to providing the funding New York schools need to safely reopen. It provides assistance to state and local governments hit hard by COVID-19; funding to stabilize public schools and higher education; and money for PPE and for sanitizing and cleaning schools. It also includes funding to eliminate the digital divide for students and educators who lack necessary computer equipment and internet connectivity.

That’s why we’re pushing for another stimulus bill – this is a national emergency and the HEROES Act is currently stalled in the Senate. To ensure that all public schools have the resources they need, the federal government must provide the resources public schools need to safely reopen. Without those resources, we won’t be able to open up for in-person learning.

Read more about NYSUT’s advocacy for the HEROES Act.

4. What about school buses? My district intends to run buses as normal and just have kids wear masks. Do we have to be socially distant on buses? What can I do to protect myself?

As long as kids are physically capable of doing so, they should wear masks and practice social distancing on buses. If your district is planning to conduct business as usual, and just have students wear masks on buses, it falls far short of SED and DOH guidelines.  Check the NYSUT website for a guidance document on safe busing guidelines. We also encourage you to work with your administration to meet spacing guidelines, ensure students wear masks and make sure students are healthy as they board. SED recommends installing sneeze guards to protect bus drivers and increasing air flow on buses.

NYSUT local union leaders may login for a list of transportation guidelines. NYSUT leader login required for access.

5. My district is talking about having kids wear masks all the time and then running schools as normal without social distancing. Is this allowed?

NYSUT is insisting that all districts employ six feet of social distancing and that educators and students wear masks. If districts cut corners, that’s not acceptable. If your district insists on operating without social distancing, we advise pushing back — firmly and directly. As educators, we are responsible for the health and safety of our students. Following proper guidelines keeps not only us and our students safe, but our communities safe as well. Even if others fail, we will do our part.

6. My child’s school district is using a different schedule than the district I work in. I’m worried about childcare for my children. What can I do?

NYSUT is working with the governor’s office to ensure that members have access to childcare. We’re exploring an approach similar to what was done for essential workers during quarantine.
Additionally, in some parts of the state, districts are coordinating their academic schedules with neighboring districts to better align childcare needs with parent work schedules; this could help reduce childcare challenges.

7. How will hybrid teaching scenarios affect special classes like music, art and physical education?

SED guidance is clear: districts are still responsible for providing a full educational program to students. State requirements for PE, art and music aren’t waived. Ensure that these subjects are included in your district’s reopening plan and be alert for proposals that use gymnasiums and auditoriums as classrooms. If your district’s plan does, make sure that alternative accommodations are made for these subjects.

Additionally, since SED guidance mandates 12 feet of social distancing in PE and chorus, schools may need to create smaller instructional groups to comply. The guidance also includes several pages of suggestions on how to approach the arts and PE, both in person and remotely.

8. What kind of leave time would members use if they are quarantined?

There are federal and state leave provisions for those who are diagnosed with, or quarantined because of COVID-19, or who are serving as a caregiver for someone diagnosed with COVID-19. In addition to FMLA, you may be entitled to 80 hours of paid leave under the expanded federal law, at two-thirds pay. New York State’s emergency COVID-19 sick leave provision provides a similar benefit and wraps around the federal mandate boosting earnings to full pay.  Employees do not have to use personal time or sick leave.

9. My district didn’t have enough custodians before, and they aren’t adding more. What can I do if I don’t feel the building or my classroom is getting cleaned sufficiently?

Make sure that your district’s reopening plan accurately reflects its cleaning needs. If all areas can’t be adequately cleaned and disinfected, the district may need to limit access to certain areas. It’s also important that your plan details enforcement so you know exactly how cleaning provisions will be carried out. If your district has a health and safety committee, it should be part of the enforcement process.

We realize there are some situations where custodians aren’t available. If your contract allows non-custodians to carry out janitorial duties, make sure members know where to find and access products; are trained in how to use them; and receive proper PPE. Local union leaders may login for a list of health and safety reopening guidelines. NYSUT leader login required for access.

10. In all of the online learning scenarios, consideration needs to be given to support staff who may not be able to afford equipment like a laptop or internet. I have an important role as a teaching assistant, but I don’t make a lot of money. Also, I’m increasingly worried that we’ll be the first positions cut, to pay for all of these safety measures. What can I do?

School-Related Professionals must be part of any reopening conversation. If your district isn’t giving you the necessary equipment or resources you need to do your job, reach out to your LRS and address the problem with your administrator. NYSUT will continue to advocate for all SRPs to ensure their jobs are protected and their voices heard.

This further illustrates the importance of passing the HEROES Act. For schools to safely reopen, they must have the funds they need to provide staff resources.

11. Lots of words are being thrown around – what’s the difference between cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing?  

Think of it like a spectrum. On one side you have cleaning, and at the opposite end is disinfection. Sanitizing falls somewhere in the middle.

The difference between sanitizing and disinfection comes down to how effectively they kill germs and viruses. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, sanitizing kills slightly fewer viruses and germs (99.9 percent) than disinfection (99.999 percent). Using either product is acceptable, but the first step must always be cleaning; surface dirt will inhibit the sanitizing and disinfection process.

12. How will hybrid models impact teacher workload? My day was longer during online learning. Now I may be doing in-person AND online learning. I’m not sure how I can possibly accomplish all of this without working 15 hours a day. What can we do about this?

Educators jumped into remote learning overnight during the COVID-19 closures and worked tirelessly 24/7. But let’s be honest, working conditions like these are not sustainable. Many educators are parents or primary caregivers who need to balance their professional responsibilities with their personal ones.

That’s why it is crucial that locals have a voice in developing plans — to ensure teachers and SRPs are not overloaded by new work expectations. Collaborative planning time built into the workday; professional learning opportunities that help streamline lessons and build technology skills; and team and interdisciplinary planning and instruction will help schools set reasonable expectations for teachers and students, all of whom are still experiencing stress, anxiety and uncertainty about the school year.

13. Who will be responsible for ensuring the district plan is enforced, particularly with regard to cleaning practices and supplying PPE? I can see folks not complying and SED hasn’t been great in the past. Who do we go to if districts aren’t complying?

NYSUT can help with compliance. Reach out to your LRS or local leader for assistance if you have concerns. Contacting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau (PESH) is another option for reporting concerns. If you believe your employer isn’t providing a workplace that is free from recognized hazards, you can file a complaint under OSHA’s General Duty Clause. You can also file a health and safety complaint through PESH. The local is strongly encouraged to have a health and safety committee to process such complaints.

14. SED’s guidance says we need to prioritize students’ social-emotional well-being but NOT at the expense of academics. How are students supposed to learn after all they’ve been through over the last five months? And what about educators’ social and emotional health?

The SED guidance recognizes that both students and staff will return to school with increased mental health needs. Reopening plans should include a prolonged transition period for students, and regular surveying and supports for adults. NYSUT continues to advocate for additional federal and state funding to meet extra staffing needs, including school counselors, social workers, school nurses and psychologists.

Locals should work with their districts as reopening plans are developed, to carve out time for collaborative planning and preparation, social and emotional learning, trauma informed and restorative practices, healing circles and for partnering with local and state agencies. Additionally, NYSUT offers training, and has research assistants and staff, to help you navigate these challenges. Reach out to NYSUT for help.

15. The windows in my classroom are nailed shut. Other rooms have no windows. How do I know if air ventilation is up to par? I’m concerned about recirculated viral air.

SED Part 155 regulations address ventilation, fresh air and air circulation in occupied school building spaces. Since the virus is airborne, ventilation is a major concern. If you’re curious about classroom ventilation and you notice your windows can’t be opened, your question to administrators should be, “what mechanical form of ventilation is available in my classroom?”

To help you understand the type and condition of your building’s system, you can also request your district’s Building Condition Survey. These must be conducted every five years by a licensed architect or engineer and are available to the public.

16. SED guidance says we need to have daily contact with every child and take attendance. What does that look like? What if we can’t contact them?

As part of their reopening plans, schools must develop a mechanism to collect and report daily teacher-student engagement or attendance. SED makes a number of recommendations for doing so, including assigning an adult ally to touch base with a specific group of students daily — particularly an adult who already has an established relationship with the student or family.

SED also suggests phone calls, text messages or even social media outreach. Once contact is made, SED asks that an emphasis be placed on the student’s or family’s barriers to “attendance” or engagement with instruction.

Students and their families may not be engaging with schools for a number of reasons, many of which are out of their, and the school’s, control. The digital divide is real and educational inequities exist. We have experts and training available to members on how to strengthen family/school engagement. Reach out to NYSUT for information.

17. My son has a lung condition that makes my getting sick very dangerous. What can I do?

Although you can’t request a workplace accommodation since you’re not personally disabled, you can seek leave under the Family Medical Leave Act if your child has a serious health condition and requires your care. Although there might be something in your union contract allowing for an accommodation, the FMLA is probably your best option.

Additionally, under the DOH guidelines, district plans must include policies regarding vulnerable populations, including students, faculty and staff who are at increased risk for severe COVID-19 illness, and individuals who may not feel comfortable returning to an in-person educational environment, to allow them to safely participate in educational activities and, where appropriate, accommodate their specific circumstances.

18. I heard about the governor’s rule about reopening under 5 percent and closing over 9 percent. How do these cutoffs work and how are they calculated?

Before Aug. 1, schools located in geographical regions that are in Phase 4 of their quarantine reopening, can reopen if the daily infection rate is under 5 percent, or lower, for the past 14 days. After Aug. 1, if the region’s infection rates reach 9 percent or higher, over a seven-day range, the schools must stop in-person instruction. The thinking is that those numbers illustrate an infection spike. The infection rate is the average percent of tests that come back positive.

19. What if there’s a positive case in school? Will schools be closed, and if so, for how long?

If there’s a positive test, district officials will contact the Department of Health which will assess the situation and determine how long the school building will remain closed. There is no formula for closure lengths — they’re determined on a case-by-case basis.

20. What’s going to happen with APPR and testing next year? I’m concerned that teachers will have double the work, no added support and administrators breathing down our necks.

We’ve already begun advocating with SED around the grade 3-8 state tests and the Regents exams for this coming year. The grade 3-8 tests are a federal requirement. We will urge SED to seek a federal waiver as they did last year. With so many reopening plans and differences in how instruction is delivered, having a standardized teaching and learning experience for every child is impossible. If the instruction isn’t standardized, you can’t use one standardized test to measure students.

Additionally, if exams aren’t administered at the end of the school year and schools are forced to operate remotely for a significant span, it may be impossible to complete teacher evaluations with fidelity. We’re also concerned that districts will attempt to conduct teacher observations remotely. Remember, any changes to a district’s APPR plan must be bargained collectively bargained with the local union.

21. Health screenings are required. Who will administer them? Us or the parents?

SED doesn’t say specifically who will administer temperature screenings, but we expect that the checks will be done at the school’s point of entry by trained staff and that PPE will be provided. NYSUT is also advocating to educate parents so they don’t send symptomatic students to school. For information on health screenings, consult SED's recently revised guidelines.

22. For professionals like school psychologists, there is no way we can socially distance and still support students. This is also true for many educators who work with special needs students, some of whom can’t wear masks. What options do we have?

NYSUT understands that social distancing will be a problem and that your needs go beyond simple face masks, especially when working with kids who can’t wear face coverings. SED recommends having a discussion with your school health services department, special education department and district administrators before the school year starts. We recommend advocating for increased PPE to better protect students and staff; N95 respirators and face shields, are necessary. Reach out to your LRS, local leader and district administrators with questions.

23. How will the community find out if there is an exposure in a building? Are there notification requirements?

Yes, districts are required to notify parents when there is a positive test result in their school and must have a plan for contacting parents when a closure is deemed necessary because of such a result. Additionally, districts are required to have a plan for communicating with parents and are encouraged to have one point of contact for these communications.

24. If we don’t feel safe returning to work, can we have a health and safety strike? What actions can we legally take to protect ourselves?

Let’s make a good faith effort to get reopening plans in place, focus on safety and try to make it work. If things aren’t working, our next step is going to court to take declaratory actions or injunctive actions as our affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, did in Florida recently. After that, we take the case into our communities. When parents and teachers work together for the safety of students, and the quality of their education, we can often effect great change.