May 28, 2020

Pallotta: 'We cannot overlook the need to reimagine how we invest in public schools'

Author: Andy Pallotta, President
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Caption: Earlier this month, Pallotta addressed NYSUT delegates during the union's special livestreamed annual convention, the Representative Assembly.

Opening Remarks by NYSUT President Andy Pallotta to the Reimagining Education Advisory Council Meeting

May 27, 2020

Good evening, and thank you for the opportunity to be here today. It is my honor to represent more than 600,000 NYSUT members from every community in every part of New York.

Now more than ever, New Yorkers are seeing the vital role that public schools and public educators play. It’s not just parents seeing how much work goes into educating their children and inspiring them to learn – though that is clearly part of it.

People are seeing that public schools are at the core of our communities. Even in the midst of this pandemic, public schools and their workers are feeding families in need, providing clothes and supplies to those who can’t afford them, and providing essential health care and social services.

Two weeks ago, I had the honor of visiting with school-related professionals in Taconic Hills. Every day, they prepare 1,200 meals and send them home to families. Imagine where those families would be without their public school.

So, now more than ever, we need to make sure we are supporting public educators and the communities they serve.

First, as you do your work, you must recognize that there is no substitute for in-person education. Technology can -- and should -- supplement in-person instruction. But it can’t ever be a substitute for the connections educators make with their students in person. It must never be seen or used as a way to reduce the workforce.

The reality is, public educators are already innovators. We use new technology all the time. But we use it to supplement learning, not as a substitute for in-person instruction.

Even online coursework itself is not new. It has been provided through public and private sources, including BOCES programs and consortiums. For example, the Northeastern Regional Information Center (NERIC) provides cooperative educational technology services and support for more than 130 school districts (large and small, urban, suburban and rural) in seven BOCES across a geographic area that covers 17 counties.

This is a successful model we have been using for years. Sadly, it is at risk because of potentially devastating cuts to BOCES funding. Go figure.

The simple fact is this. We must have highly qualified educators working in person in a healthy and safe learning environment. There is no substitute for the personal bond between student and educator. That is the foundation of education -- from kindergarten all the way through to higher education and graduate school.

As four former Teachers of the Year recently put it in the Daily News, it’s not just the ability to challenge students intellectually by calling on them to answer a question at the board. It’s the laughs, high-fives and one-on-one conversations that help determine if a student might be dealing with a non-academic issue we need to address before we can worry about learning that day.

There are also a number of activities offered by schools that cannot be adequately addressed through technology – things like athletics, clubs, music, theater, and extracurricular activities.

Try to imagine high school chemistry experiments without hands-on instruction. Imagine trying to conduct online physics labs for PhD candidates and college students, or trying to replicate hands on vocational training in a Zoom meeting. You can’t do it.

Technology and remote learning may not necessarily be appropriate for each student’s learning style. There are many different types of learners that teachers are able to adapt for in school settings such as hands on, visual, auditory, etc.

We must also consider the developmental appropriateness of technology for a student. For example, younger students should have less screen time and more play time.

Beyond questions about technology, we must not lose sight of the fact that class sizes matter. Whether you are teaching in person or teaching online, too many students per instructor is a recipe for everyone to fall behind.

And, of course, all of this is happening in a broader context. If your vision for reimagining education includes more remote learning, than you absolutely must tackle the problems of unfair and unequal access to the internet. It is not just students in some communities who struggle to get wi-fi access. In some parts of the state, we have educators who have to drive to their school parking lot to log-in to the school wi-fi just to conduct their remote classes or upload course materials. That is unacceptable, and deeply unfair.

Finally, as you think about how to reimagine education, you simply cannot overlook the need to reimagine how we invest in public schools.

Now more than ever, we need to make sure we raise the revenue required to invest in public schools and public institutes of higher learning.

The public educators who are receiving so much praising and applause for stepping up in this time of crisis should not pay the bills for this pandemic.

Yet, school districts across the state are preparing to vote on budgets that will implement deep cuts to education, eliminate classroom educators, and slash programs such as music, arts and other enrichment programing key to supporting a student’s academic career.

For example, the Troy School District is proposing to lay off 23 reading teachers. In Mount Vernon, where 10 percent of students are homeless and nearly 80 percent are economically disadvantaged, state aid makes up a significant portion of their budget, and cuts would devastate a district that so desperately needs supports for its students in need. In Rochester, further cuts are poised to decimate schools that already have gone through dozens of mid-year staffing cuts.

These are unacceptable examples of what our schools are facing in the state that has more billionaires than anywhere else in the world.

It all starts with commitment. This is not a matter of resources; it is a matter of will.

When this is all said and done, we will have students who may have been impacted directly by COVID-19. They may have lost a loved one to the virus. Some may have relied on school to provide meals due to relatives losing their jobs. Others will feel isolated because they lost their daily contact with teachers, school related professional and their peers.

Our answer to those children and those families cannot be “log into your Chromebook,” or “our district can’t afford a social worker.”

We must commit ourselves to giving those students the resources they need.

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