March/April 2021 Issue
February 28, 2021

Reopening safely: We know what needs to happen

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source: NYSUT United
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Caption: Three hundred teachers from nine school districts and one BOCES school were vaccinated at a central site in Saratoga, and it was their own school nurses who administered the shots to protect them from COVID-19. Photo by Andrew Watson.

Educators are not unfamiliar with the finger-pointing. But this is ridiculous.

Opinion pieces in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, on “mainstream” television and cable news shows blame “teachers unions” for blocking the return to in-person instruction as we enter the second year of COVID-19.

You’ve heard it, and you know, nothing could be further from the truth.

“No one wants to return to in-person learning more than the educators, who only want to help their students succeed,” said National Education Association President Becky Pringle, right after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines in February.

“The science continues to back what educators, families and health experts have been saying for months, but we also must ensure that every school has the resources to put in place measures to keep students and educators safe,” she said.

The guidance on safely operating schools during the pandemic also confirms what New York educators have said.

“We all believe students learn best in classrooms,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta, “but it must be done in the safest way possible.”

Masks must be mandatory, there should be six feet of social distancing, schools need adequate ventilation systems, and hygiene protocols must be strictly followed.

“These are the steps that help build confidence in local reopening plans,” Pallotta said.

When school districts have proposed reopening plans that do not follow these guidelines, local unions have pushed back. For example, the Rochester Teachers Association, led by Adam Urbanski, demanded and received ventilation upgrades after bringing in an industrial hygienist to inspect buildings.

The long awaited CDC guidance also clarified that COVID testing for students and staff has an important role to play in limiting the spread of the virus in schools. However, here in New York, it is not happening. A NYSUT survey of local unions found in mid-February that fewer than 60 of 700 school districts around the state — less than 10 percent — were testing students and staff for coronavirus.

“That is unacceptable,” Pallotta said.

Critics have claimed that virus infection rates in schools are lower than in their corresponding communities, and that the risk is lower in the classroom. But with almost zero testing data in school populations, that claim is meaningless.

NYSUT has maintained that minimally invasive testing is the only proven way to screen for asymptomatic spread of the deadly disease.

“Waiting for people to display symptoms is waiting too long,” Pallotta said.

“SED and the Department of Health should not only ensure local testing programs can continue, they should take steps to encourage more districts to adopt routine testing programs.”

He called for the state and federal governments to provide the financial resources districts need to conduct comprehensive testing programs.

It’s not unprecedented.

United University Professions, NYSUT’s affiliate on SUNY state-operated campuses, helped implement regular testing as a prerequisite for attendance.

And certainly many highprofile sports leagues have been relying on it, too.

“If the NFL can do it, why can’t we?” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Vax pop

In late February, the governor issued an executive order that would require school districts to provide a weekly report to the Department of Health detailing the number of teachers in each school who have been vaccinated. After careful review, NYSUT raised concerns regarding the privacy of protected health information. As a result, DOH notified districts that they are NOT to collect this information from teachers and to await revised guidance.

NYSUT ensured that its members would be eligible for the vaccine in category 1b, but, like everyone, many members who wanted to get vaccinated had trouble getting appointments.

As often happens, the process worked better when unions got involved.

At least 500 Westchester teachers and school staff were vaccinated recently through a partnership with the county.

The county had been vaccinating first responders at the Westchester Community College vaccine distribution site for about a month, and then started using the site to vaccinate teachers who had been unable to secure appointments.

The joint effort between the county, local school leaders and the NYSUT regional office in Tarrytown began when the regional superintendents council surveyed districts for data about how many teachers and other staff wanted to get the vaccine but had been unable to secure a first shot. They shared that information with the county, and the county reached out to NYSUT.

County Executive George Latimer and the county health department were great partners, Pallotta said.

“Elsewhere, we’re working with the state on how to connect local unions that want to play a role with their local departments of health to ramp up efforts to get shots in arms.”

Another 300 teachers from nine school districts and one BOCES school were vaccinated recently at a central site in Saratoga, and their own school nurses administered the shots.

Each of the school nurses administering the vaccines were given a four-hour training by the Saratoga County Department of Health.

Galway school nurse Sue Horne said people who received the vaccine in the first round approached her in school on the next work day, telling her they were grateful to see a familiar face administering the dose into their arm.

“This is a comfort,” she said.

Bruce Hoffman, president of the Saratoga Adirondack BOCES Educators Association, agreed. “For us to be able to get back to some kind of normalcy is everything.”

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