November/December 2020 Issue
October 18, 2020

Local unions play crucial role to safeguard students, staff and communities

Author: Kara Smith
Source: NYSUT United
port washington
Caption: Regina McLean, president of the Port Washington TA with member Tony Facciola, a middle school Italian teacher. Photo provided.

One of the symptoms of the pandemic has been a rash of peevish fingerpointing and panicky decision-making by school administrators.

Educators have often been left out of the planning process and sometimes targeted for criticism while speaking up to protect the safety of students and staff alike. In communities big and small, NYSUT local unions have stepped up to restore some stability and common sense during trying times.

In the Williamsville School District outside Buffalo, the Williamsville Teachers Association was an island of sanity in a sea of turmoil as administrators developed, rejected and reconfigured remote-learning reopening plans for grades 5-12 five different times. The last plan came six days before school started and required 90 new teacher hires.

“It was very stressful for our members; things were constantly changing,” said Michelle Licht, WTA president and a NYSUT Board member. After hearing member concerns, the WTA raised red flags about the last-minute plan in a meeting with the superintendent the Wednesday before Labor Day. “Safety plans weren’t in place, teachers and students didn’t have schedules and we didn’t have enough staff,” said Licht, noting that the local was largely shut out of the reopening planning process.

When the district superintendent issued an 11th hour, indefinite cancellation of remote learning for grades 5-12 due to insufficient staff, the Williamsville Board of Education stepped in, replacing the superintendent and announcing that all classes would start out remotely so all students could receive instruction. The change meant that WTA members had to switch from hybrid to remote learning with just a few days notice.

A new plan for hybrid and remote learning launched in mid-October. “The district acknowledged that we need to be involved and has included over 20 educators on the planning committee,” she said. (See "5 Questions"in this issue for a Q&A with Licht.)

Local negotiates ‘remote school’

At the Port Washington Union Free School District in Nassau County, Long Island, the Port Washington TA successfully negotiated with administrators to offer a “remote school” for K-5 remote learners instead of livestreaming instruction, as originally planned.

“Livestreaming is challenging because you have no way of knowing in real time if students understand the lesson,” said PWTA President Regina McLean. She explained that while livestreaming, district educators simultaneously teach a class of in-person students and a class of logged-in remote students. “Kids can see us, but we can’t see them. You have to pay attention to the kids in front of you — it’s very difficult to interact with the children at home.”

The agreement was also a win for members seeking workplace accommodations. Administrators agreed to allow educators hesitant to return to the classroom due to medical conditions, the opportunity to lead a remote class. “Originally remote options were offered to students, not teachers,” said McLean, which led to some members taking precautionary unpaid leaves.

A unique solution to quarantining

After COVID-19 cases in Horseheads, Chemung County, jumped from 177 to 380 in the span of two weeks following a local church gathering, Horseheads TA members were happy their local had the foresight to negotiate a working agreement for educators forced to quarantine.

“Teachers who are asymptomatic can teach online from home,” said HTA President Bill Finnerty, explaining that another educator supervises the class during the livestreamed lesson. “We wanted to set something up so that members aren’t penalized for following department of health guidelines.”

So far, two teachers who’ve used the arrangement give it a thumbs up. “We’re just trying to do what we can to make people feel safe in the school environment,” said Finnerty.