Joe DeCarlo, a member of the Auburn Teachers Association, received a hearty burst of applause for receiving NYSUT's Unsung Hero award at the statewide union's biennial Health and Safety Conference last month.
The award was created in 2009 to honor union members who identify and help solve health and safety problems in the workplace or manifest healthy environments at work.
DeCarlo first attended the Health and Safety Conference in 2015. He was so fired up he went back to his school district and started an ATA health and safety committee, which he now chairs, and a districtwide committee involving ATA members, staff and administrators. He co-chairs that committee.
"The district is now addressing long-standing issues," he said, including rodents, ventilation problems and temperature extremes. He successfully prodded the district to provide the prescribed number of toilets, as required by OSHA standards, for faculty, separate from students.
"The training and learning is the real award," he told fellow conference attendees.
DeCarlo put together a survey of ATA members to gauge teachers' health and safety concerns. Number one on the list: air quality and temperature.
He supplied uniform thermometers in classrooms with specific issues. In one building, one classroom was 56 degrees while another was 86 degrees. In one wing of a school, where four kindergarten classes are located, the temperature was 88 degrees.
"Our littlest ones were experiencing high extremes," he said. He urged his colleagues to collect data for NYSUT, which is tracking temperature disparities to advocate for a law that would limit upper temperature extremes.
The second biggest concern is the district's failure to fill positions when someone is sick, DeCarlo said.
When teachers are out and a substitute is not hired, general education teachers are pulled out of their classes to school special education students, and vice versa.
"So, we're absent when we're not," said DeCarlo, a special education teacher.
When maintenance staff is absent and no one fills in, cleanliness of the school is impacted. Social workers, school psychologists, occupational, physical and speech therapists are automatically not replaced when they are unavailable, he said. DeCarlo hopes to organize a think tank to find solutions to this problem.
"Communication and connection are the source of our strength," he said. "Our real strength is unity. It's not enough to tell it like it is. You must work to make it like it should be."