January/February 2021 Issue
December 19, 2020

Educators say ‘new normal’ is not sustainable

Author: Sylvia Saunders
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As districts cope with spiking COVID-19 cases and crippling staff shortages, union members urged NYSUT to keep up the pressure for increased safety measures and more social-emotional support for staff.

“The push is to keep schools open — not keep them safe,” said Joanna Monachino-Orlando, Shenendehowa Teachers Association.

“Teachers are performing miracles at great personal cost,” said Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake leader Mike Mosall. “It’s not sustainable.”

The two were among many who spoke out recently in a series of online union meetings, including NYSUT’s Policy Council, Subject Area committees and BOCES Leadership Council.

Clearly moved by the first-hand reports from the field, NYSUT officers said their comments will help shape the statewide union’s ongoing advocacy with the governor’s office, state legislators, the Department of Health and State Education Department.

“We’re going to keep pushing back,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta.

NYSUT members from around the state shared poignant stories of how difficult it is to keep up with ever-changing state protocols for COVID-19 — and the varying implementation by local school districts. Many voiced concerns about the wide range of quarantine policies, testing protocols and a lack of notification when someone in the school community tests positive for COVID-19.

The uncertainty is taking its toll, leaders said. As COVID cases spiked throughout November and December, a growing number of schools shifted back and forth between in-person/hybrid schedules to fully remote. Others extended remote instruction into January and beyond.

With so many chaotic scheduling changes and hybrid versions, many members are struggling with childcare issues, said Schenectady Federation of Teachers President Juliet Benaquisto. “It would be a little easier if schedules were more aligned,” she said.

Union leaders also urged NYSUT to advocate for the state to cancel this year’s Regents Exams and grades 3–8 assessments. “We’re halfway through the year and there are big differences in how kids are learning,” said North Syracuse Education Association’s Joanne Thornton.

“Teachers and students need to know; what will finals look like?” Leaders also noted the lack of uniformity among districts and schools is clearly hurting morale. While some schools allow educators to teach remotely from their homes, others require that staff report to school to stream lessons. “It’s insulting,” said one elementary teacher, who must report to her empty classroom.

With so many educators in and out of quarantine and a severe shortage of substitutes, some districts have shifted to fully remote because they simply don’t have enough staff.

“I worry that COVID-19 has increased the inequity around the state,” said Benaquisto, whose district depends significantly on state aid. “Our district went remote because of savings.

We also struggle with the digital divide.” The pandemic “has also brought to light the terrible condition of school buildings,” said Newburgh TA’s Lourdes Lopez-Romero. Clarence TA President Elizabeth Dunne agreed, asking why the state’s ventilation standards are more stringent for malls than school buildings.

“The pandemic has also shown us we need to have something in place for (staff) burnout,” said Dora Leland, a Horseheads TA leader and NYSUT Board member. ”In the last four months, we’ve had members who are sobbing — and they do not feel supported. Social-emotional support does not mean shooting us an EAP video to watch.”

NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango agreed, noting that SED’s reopening guidance clearly specifies that districts must provide ongoing social and emotional supports for staff.

“Educators are hurting,” DiBrango wrote in a blog after the meetings.

“Pandemic teaching and learning is hard, exhausting and some days nearly impossible.”

She said it’s essential for districts to make social-emotional support for staff a priority for the new year.

“Educators need time to plan, time to collaborate and time to share how things are really going,” DiBrango said. “They need real help and real solutions to tackle the challenges they are facing, so they can be at their best for the students they care so deeply about.”

Online safety is key

With so many hours each day now devoted to online teaching, learning and communicating with students, NYSUT reminds members to stay sharp on basic online safety.

The American Federation of Teachers has compiled a list of resources where educators can easily access information on cyberbullying, privacy, how to protect your identity, and digital citizenship, among other issues. Visit aft.org/online-safetyand-cyberbullying-resources.

For school social workers who may be providing telemental health services, the New York State School Social Workers Association recommends avoiding social media, personal cellphones or personal emails to connect with students or families. For more info, visit https://nyssswa.org/coronavirus-school-response-resources/telemental-health-school-social-work-services/.

With many people using Zoom to connect virtually, it’s important to know how to keep uninvited guests out — using a waiting room is recommended.

Find more tips at https://blog.zoom.us/keep-uninvited-guests-out-of-your-zoom-event/

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