March 12, 2021

AFT pandemic grants to help students, families

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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Caption: White Plains Teachers Association members Jen Stein (left) and Kara McCormick, local president, are excited to be able to set up six new food pantries in the district with AFT grant money. Photo provided.

It’s big. It’s $600,000 big. That is the high score for the second round of AFT Innovation Fund Pandemic grants, and out of 16 recipients nationwide, one-quarter of them are NYSUT local unions.

The grants are chunky enough to make real action happen: from refrigerators and freezers being bought for new school pantries in White Plains; to yoga mats and mindfulness curriculum development in Copenhagen. The money will fund mobile hot spots in remote homes unable to access the internet in La Fargeville; and, in New York City, will allow the creation of a partnership to train teachers in social-emotional learning strategies.

“We’re thrilled to help support educators who have stepped up during such a difficult time. So many of our members have identified pressing needs due to the increased stress and trauma of the pandemic and the challenges related to distance learning and getting schools reopened safely,” said Evelyn DeJesus, AFT executive vice president and former NYSUT Board member.

The White Plains food pantry project began with one school food pantry that opened in 2018, the result of efforts by school social worker Denise Rayvid, who works with many families in crisis.

When White Plains Teachers Association President Kara McCormick connected with NYSUT to set up a dozen massive book giveaways through First Books, Inc., the local was witness to the extent of how many people were struggling.

“While we were distributing books, folks were picking up meals,” McCormick said, noting the long lines. “We realized it would great to expand the food pantries.”

Between March, when school buildings shut down due to the pandemic, and December, 446,000 emergency breakfast and lunch meals were provided in the district. More than 52 percent of families have reported living in poverty, she said.

The $50,000 AFT grant will allow the White Plains TA to purchase six freezers and seven refrigerators for new school pantries, as well as a refrigerator for a local church food pantry that services many student families. Grant money will buy shelving, tubs, and non-perishable foods. $5,000 is earmarked for emergency clothing such as socks and underwear, along with personal care items including toothbrushes, soap and shampoo.

Space will also be set aside for donated clothing.

“This will all help improve the lives of our students and families beyond the classroom,” McCormick said. “This is a testament of networking and partnerships among unions.”

In Copenhagen, the TA is very mindful of how it will spend its $39,000 grant: the local is purchasing yoga equipment and developing a mindfulness curriculum.

Once school librarian Krisha Greene took mindfulness training, she began training teachers to use it in the classroom and for personal wellness. With the onset of the pandemic, using mindfulness has become more paramount — as has finding safe alternatives to traditional physical education, which has decreased for safety reasons. With the grant, interested teachers will receive training in classroom yoga and mindfulness.

Copenhagen TA President John Cain said teachers already using it in class have seen positive changes. “It has definitely helped me to prioritize the mental health of my students. Mindfulness has made me a more compassionate educator.

The AFT grant will also improve Copenhagen’s backpack program, headed by CTA member Michelle Bartlett, school social worker. Currently, 35–40 backpacks are sent home each weekend, and the grant money will be used to buy fresh foods to fill them.

“The nearest grocery store is at least 20 minutes away and it isn’t always easy for families to get fresh, healthy foods on a regular basis,” Cain said. The food will come with a 30-minute recipe, and Cain said (CTA members?) will record the recipes being made in the school makerspace kitchen to post online for families to access.

Nutrition and wellness will also be the focus of a Copenhagen version of TED Talks called “Knight Chats,” which will include community agencies sharing information for families.

Staff wellness will get a boost with a grant-funded wellness day. “Our union helps make us to be invested in our school and our community, as well as giving us the time and tools to take care of each other,” said Cain, whose local is a graduate of NYSUT’s Local Action Project. “NYSUT and the AFT give us the opportunities to learn, coordinate, strategize and focus. You cannot put a dollar value on the knowledge we have gained from the great resources available to us.”

La Fargeville’s $23,000 grant money will allow the TA to buy 50 mobile hot spots to assist families in remote areas who lack internet access.

“We know this year has been extremely difficult for our students and families and hope this award will provide a little relief and support,” said Deanna Henry, LTA president.

The hot spots will be in students’ homes, where they will have a limited number of gigabytes to enable students to get schoolwork done. They will be returned for the summer, so that they can be used again in the fall.

“It’s crucial to our students so they can be on the same playing field,” Henry said.

In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers earned a $40,000 grant to create a partnership with Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility to offer teachers professional learning in social-emotional learning strategies. The goal is to develop a sustainable coaching program to be used in school culture.

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