November/December 2020 Issue
October 18, 2020

5 Questions with Michelle Licht

Source: NYSUT United
5 questions

Michelle Licht is president of the Williamsville Teachers Association.

1. The superintendent tried to blame teachers for your district’s chaotic school reopening. How did that make your members feel?

Reopening has been stressful for all districts, but the districts that have been successful worked together collaboratively rather than pointing fingers. Williamsville TA members would have been valuable assets in the planning for reopening. Being excluded from the majority of that planning — and then blamed when the plans didn’t work — was frustrating and disheartening.

2. Multiple media outlets — even CNN — reported the superintendent’s false narrative that hybrid reopening plans fell apart because there were too many teacher retirements, medical leaves and resignations due to COVID19. How did you set the record straight?

The numbers that were reported were so far from the truth that they raised questions immediately. We reported the truth on social media and shared the accurate information with the public and the Board of Education. Since all of the personnel actions taken by the Board of Ed are published on the website, the narrative was easy to disprove but, unfortunately, most media outlets didn’t report the correct information.

3. The school board quickly placed the superintendent on administrative leave and appointed an interim superintendent. How did you reach a more collaborative approach for reopening?

As soon as the acting superintendent was appointed, he invited all of the district’s union leaders to a meeting that evening. This was the first meeting of its kind in the time I’ve been involved. That step alone set a different tone for how the district would operate. Within days, all of the members of the district’s leadership team, as well as representatives from our union and the administrators, were meeting to develop a plan to reopen schools.

4. How does the latest reopening plan address teacher concerns?

No reopening plan is perfect, but our district went through so many plans in the two weeks before school began that no one could keep up. Every version had significant issues, but the plan on the first day of school was untenable because there was no instruction at all for our students who had chosen full remote learning.

The new plan that has been collaboratively developed provides for daily instruction for all of our students and has our hybrid students returning to the buildings by the end of October. This new plan addresses some of the significant problems we had with previous plans: Teachers will not be forced to livestream lessons, students at home will not be expected to stare passively at a screen all day, students learning remotely will be taught by our teachers, and our teachers will have the autonomy to make instructional choices that are best for their students and their content areas.

It’s going to be a challenge to implement because our members are being asked to change the way they teach and find meaningful ways to include and support those students learning from home each day — but our members will do everything they can to support our students this year.

5. What has this experience taught you about the union’s role?

The primary purpose of a union is obviously to look out for our members, but we also serve as a safeguard for our students. A week before school started, we notified the Board of Education and superintendent that the district wasn’t ready to open. We didn’t have the staff we needed; students and teachers didn’t have class schedules; and we didn’t have the PPE we needed. We had serious concerns — not just for our members — but for the students for whom we are responsible. Without unions, who would raise those concerns?