November/December 2021 Issue
October 25, 2021

Back at school: Striving to ‘meet the kids where they are’

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source: NYSUT United
albany schools
Caption: Albany PSTA member and fourth grade teacher Felicia Nobles works with a student at Arbor Hill Elementary School. Photo by Jake Planck.

After a long summer of waiting for the state of New York to provide guidance on how to safely reopen schools this fall, newly installed Gov. Kathy Hochul finally cut bait and told P–12 schools what they needed to do.

Her Department of Health plan called for mass vaccination of educators and staff and regular testing for those who declined inoculation. She also mandated masks for students and staff in buildings and continued social distancing.

While the reactions in communities across the state varied drastically, NYSUT supported the guidance, which closely followed the federal CDC recommendations already in place.

Only days after she took office, following the resignation of Andrew Cuomo, Gov. Hochul took “decisive action to bolster health and safety in our schools,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta.

The union supports universal mask wearing as part of a layered mitigation strategy that also includes robust COVID–19 testing, contact tracing, proper ventilation and other strategies recommended by public health experts. It also supports regular COVID–19 testing for school staff who are not vaccinated.

Most importantly, “It’s critical that educators continue to have a voice in the implementation of vaccine requirements and other COVID policies at the local level,” Pallotta said.

So, how has it gone? “Things have been going ok,” said Albany Public Schools Teachers Association President Laura Franz on the Capitol Pressroom radio program, as educators strive to “meet kids where they are” and deal with the unprecedented trauma of a global pandemic. The social-emotional learning needs are crucial right now.

“We’re trying to take it day by day,” she said.

“Teachers are doing what they’ve always done,” said Joe Cantafio, president of the West Seneca TA, “doing the best we can with what we have and where we are.”

The mask mandate has caused some communities to push back against school districts that are following the state guidance. In buildings, it’s not as much of an issue.

“As usual, students are very resilient,” Cantafio said on the same radio program. “They wanted to be back in school every day, we’ve wanted them back in school every day, and if the price for that is wearing a mask, we’ve all done it.”

Franz said the requirement to show proof of vaccination or submit to testing is a reasonable and workable guideline. People may have a number of reasons to resist vaccinations, but the answer is to ensure that they have access to free testing so they can participate fully.

United University Professions President Fred Kowal said SUNY’s non-hospital campuses continued this fall with a testing mandate for faculty and staff who declined vaccination, which became the model across the country. All on-campus students must be vaccinated.

“We had real problems with outbreaks on many campuses last year, but the chancellor instituted aggressive steps” that have been effective so far, he said.

NYSUT Second Vice President Ron Gross leads the union’s health and safety program. “Our membership is experiencing a pendulum swinging back and forth across the pandemic,” he said. “First we were dealing with social distancing and masks, and now we are focused on vaccine and testing mandates. Our members are feeling the stress, and they are coming to us seeking answers.”

Bottom line, vaccination is the best protection, but “we support a strong testing program for those who opt out of the vaccination regimen,” Gross said.