September 18, 2020

Orleans-Niagara BOCES TA files complaint charging unsafe school reopening

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source:  NYSUT Communications
 O-N BOCES TA President Deborah Hillburn.
Caption: Orleans-Niagara BOCES Teachers Association president Deborah Hillburn met with WKBW reporter Eileen Buckley to talk about the union's lawsuit . Screen capture via WKBW.

The Orleans-Niagara BOCES Teachers Association has filed a Public Employee Health and Safety (PESH) complaint with the Department of Labor, charging the Orleans-Niagara BOCES has ignored the state’s COVID-19 protocols to protect students and staff.

The complaint, prepared by NYSUT legal and field staff, raises numerous concerns related to a lack of social distancing, face coverings, school cleaning, personal protective equipment and mandatory health screenings.

“During these unprecedented times, teachers cannot do their jobs effectively when basic health and safety procedures are ignored and protective supplies are not available,” said O-N BOCES TA President Deborah Hillburn. “Under Superintendent (Clark) Godshall’s leadership, the BOCES is dangerously exposing staff and students to contracting and spreading this deadly virus, particularly with students traveling back to their home districts when their half-day at BOCES is over.”

Orleans-Niagara BOCES serves students from 13 component districts, with nine sites offering a variety of special education, alternative education and career and technical classes.

Hillburn said BOCES sites began in-person classes on Sept. 8, with teachers and staff reporting for work the week before.

Teachers immediately raised concerns about the lack of safety protocols. For example, student desks were as close as three feet; there was not enough personal protective equipment and cleaning and disinfection protocols were inconsistent. In addition, O-N BOCES has not adequately enforced the completion of required health screenings for staff and students.

The O-N BOCES TA compiled information to document the widespread concerns and surveyed the membership to determine whether the district was complying with its reopening plan submitted to the state. Eighty-seven percent of the union membership cast a vote of “no confidence” in the leadership of Superintendent Godshall, Hillburn said.

NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said the statewide union stands behind O-N BOCES TA and other local unions around the state as they fight to ensure schools are safe for students and staff.

“Health and safety must continue to be the top priority for every school district across the state — whether it’s providing more PPE, enforcing six-foot social distancing requirements or ensuring every classroom is consistently cleaned,” Pallotta said. “O-N BOCES must address these concerns immediately.”

With the complaint filed, the Commissioner of Labor could inspect the facilities, fine the BOCES for non-compliance until the situation is remedied and/or seek an injunction in state Supreme Court to compel O-N BOCES to comply with the reopening plan, State Education Department guidance and State Department of Health directives.