Friday the 13th of March 2020, the 41 members of Scio Teachers Association, were scrambling. The district in southern Allegany County has 350 K-12 students in one building, and the state had suddenly ordered schools to close due to COVID-19.
Everyone was trying to make plans and figure out remote instruction, but no one knew how long it would last.
“We thought it might be a couple of weeks,” said TA President Kevin Mole. “We never came back.”
It was the same down the road at Friendship that day. The 346-student district provided a 30-minute Zoom tutorial and closed the building down for the remainder of the school year. The faculty and administration met periodically as they all figured it out, but by June, the goal was clear.
“We are here for one reason and one reason only, and that’s the kids,” said Jim Greenaker, Friendship TA president. “We know the kids learn better when we are in the same space together.”
While media reports focus on districts that have struggled to safely reopen school buildings, these locals in rural southwestern New York have proven that educators are committed to staying open and doing it right.
“Everyone wants to be in school,” Mole said. “Teachers want to teach from school, students want to be in school. That’s the ideal, that’s the goal. The question was: Can we do it safely?”
The answer is yes.
“We’ve been open in person 100 percent all day every day” since September, said Carin Schultz, president of the 21-member Whitesville TA. Whitesville, with 175 students in one building, is tucked in the southeastern corner of the county on the Pennsylvania border. “Our ability to keep everyone safe here was our main priority,” she said.
Opening buildings safely has been a tremendous challenge for most districts around the state, despite the best efforts of educators and their unions.
“Any educator will tell you the best way for students to learn is to be in person in the classroom,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “In a number of places — notable among them these three in southwestern New York — that has been done safely and successfully.”
The smaller size and relative isolation of these communities worked to their advantage, but it was not easy.
“It might be logistically less complex” in a smaller district, said Mole. But, “the issues are the same, and you need everybody pulling in the same direction.”
No matter what size the district, this requires state support, unified teachers, a cooperative administration and parents on board to make it work.
Local union members in these districts spent months working with their administrations to anticipate the difficulties and develop protocols.
“We had many meetings over the summer,” Schultz said, “and our administration allowed anyone who wanted to be a part of it to attend. Most of our unit members attended the meetings.”
Arrows on the floor control the flow of foot traffic throughout the building to reduce risk of COVID–19 exposure.
Early in the summer Greenaker surveyed his members and 98 percent of respondents said they would do anything necessary to get back to in-person instruction in September.
“From then on, our bargaining unit drove the conversation,” he said. The members identified potential issues the administration hadn’t thought of and developed solutions.
“As a union, we came out unified, and our members felt the administration was responsive to them,” Greenaker said. Ultimately, “the plan was teacher friendly; without the teachers we have here, it wouldn’t have worked.”
Mole said his membership and the Scio administration “worked as equals” to plan the reopening.
“It’s a matter of trust,” he said. “That trust is amplified at a time like this when the dangers and issues are even more intense and real. … We wouldn't be doing it if we couldn’t do it safely.”