September/October 2020 Issue
August 22, 2020

Unions push for school reopenings to be smart, sensible and safe

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United

In a summer like no other, NYSUT is working closely with local unions and state officials to keep safety — and sanity — front and center as schools decide how and when to reopen this fall.

After Gov. Cuomo announced Aug. 7 that low infection rates for COVID-19 meant New York’s schools could reopen, he left it up to individual school districts to determine whether they should.

In addition to planning instruction, Cuomo said that districts needed to develop specific plans for testing, tracing and what to do if a student or staff member contracts the virus. He gave districts just two weeks to conduct online informational meetings with parents and educators to answer questions and address any concerns.

With the clock ticking, union leaders around the state stepped up and took a close look at reopening plans. In locals big and small, leaders polled members, pushed back on a variety of health and safety issues and questioned plans that were incomplete or didn’t make sense.

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“Educators and parents are in complete agreement: School districts need to err on the side of caution,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “If there are any questions about safety or if any district’s plan is missing any details, that district must start with remote learning. Masks and social distancing are a must. If there is a single case of COVID-19 in a school, that building must shut down for 14 days. And any days of remote learning must count toward the 180-day school requirements. These criteria should be non-negotiable everywhere.”

Pallotta noted the statewide union fully supports any local unions that do not feel that schools are ready to reopen.

In New York City, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew urged all parents to opt for remote learning until the Department of Education conducts a sweeping series of safety reviews and tests all students and staff for COVID-19. “It is our judgment that if you open schools Sept. 10, it will be one of the biggest debacles in history,” Mulgrew said, noting the UFT is fully prepared to move forward with litigation and possible job actions, if necessary.

Teacher unions in Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany and Yonkers polled membership and approved resolutions declaring that schools were not ready to reopen and should instead start with remote instruction. As NYSUT United went to press, Rochester, Buffalo and Yonkers districts agreed to proceed with remote learning, at least temporarily.

“Teachers do want to return to at-school and in-person instruction but only when it is safe to do so,” said RTA President Adam Urbanski.

With old HVAC systems and buildings where windows cannot open, union leaders in other big cities were working with NYSUT lawyers on possible litigation concerning ventilation problems.

“We only have one chance to get this done safely,” said White Plains TA President Kara McCormick-Lyons, whose district was one of many that decided in the final weeks of summer to begin the year fully remote. Others across the state choosing a remote-only opening include West Seneca, Rome, Oneonta, Ballston Spa, Kingston, Wappingers Falls, Suffern, Mount Vernon and New Rochelle. New Paltz postponed its in-person opening after officials found that masks and other personal protective equipment were back-ordered.

Pallotta noted that NYSUT staffers were working around the clock on a number of fronts to help members throughout the summer. While NYSUT’s legislative department advocated for additional federal and state aid and worked to find solutions to childcare issues for members, the union’s certification experts answered questions and helped members with emergency credentialing.

Field and legal staff assisted members with a wide range of questions about leave rights, accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, retirement options and numerous other employment issues. A special area on the website, nysut.

org/reopeningschools, includes the latest guidance from the state departments of health and education, plus information on health and safety, employment issues and union services. With many districts moving forward with furloughs and cuts, NYSUT updated its layoff guide with important details about unemployment and health insurance.

NYSUT’s Education & Learning Trust, the union’s professional development arm, offered a number of new online courses to help members with the shift to remote learning and how to help students navigate their learning emotionally and academically.

“The union has been relentless on many fronts,” Pallotta said. “And we know these fights will only continue as we head into a very challenging school year.”