Knocking on doors in the community this summer, it didn’t take long for Rakia Hardaway to encounter a classic problem from last year’s remote and hybrid learning in Rochester’s city schools.
“At one of the first houses we visited, we came across a mom who was so happy to talk to us,” the Rochester Teachers Association member said.
The parent had two students in school with very different needs. Last year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, she had to transfer one son, who could not attend remotely due to an IEP and health issues, to a different school while his brother attended remotely at home.
She needed help, but the school administration couldn’t answer her questions. The woman was worried and had no idea how to avoid similar confusion this year.
“We’re sorry they weren’t helpful,” Hardaway told her. “She was so happy to meet someone who was willing to listen to her. We were able to recommend people for her to talk to” about her specific concerns.
Hardaway even had a colleague in the building she promised to call and ask, “Hey, can you look out for this kid?”
No question, that makes a mom feel better.
This summer, NYSUT mobilized ambassadors of its Member Organizing Institute to launch a community outreach campaign in cities across the state to assure parents that they have partners in local education unions and that sending their students back to in-person classrooms will be safe and effective.
Hardaway and other members of the RTA and the Rochester Association of Paraprofessionals are reaching out to families in the district as part of an initiative to build the NYSUT-backed Rochester Community Coalition to Save Our Schools.
“Most of the parents are surprised,” Hardaway said. “That was what made it so exciting for them.
‘Wow we’ve never seen anyone do anything like this before.’” “The families we talk to are very grateful,” said Gia Vallone, another RTA member. “Some were apprehensive at first, but once we get comfortable talking with them, they are appreciative that their voice is being heard. Going forward, we hope to work together.”
Many communities have struggled with more questions than answers as districts waited weeks for state Department of Health guidance that didn’t come. Families are concerned.
“In urban and economically disadvantaged communities we have a lot of people who worry about how to send their kids back safely,” said Laura Franz, president of the Albany Public School TA.
Canvasing neighborhoods with members of the TA and the Albany Public School United Employees, “we’re trying to find out, if students are not coming back to the classroom, why not?” she said. “We’re showing them what we’re doing to make it safe, and why we think it’s important for kids to be back.”
Again, it’s a new connection for parents, she said, as “APSTA and APSUE really are taking the lead in having these conversations.”
Franz said that when the state DOH finally declined to provide reopening guidance in August, it was a green light for districts to come up with local plans — following the CDC guidelines — and her union began to work with the administration. It would have been better to get that decision a month earlier, but at least they could begin.
A week later, NYSUT applauded the State Education Department for stepping in and actually issuing statewide guidance — also adhering to the CDC recommendations — on reopening schools.
“As educators, we know that the best place for students to learn is in the classroom,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “We must do everything we can to ensure every student has access to full-time, in-person instruction this year.”
That includes ensuring schools are safe and healthy for students and the people who serve them. In response to the guidance, NYSUT reaffirmed its support for recommendations by public health experts and SED to implement universal masking, robust surveillance testing and other measures as part of a layered, holistic approach that ensures the health and safety of everyone in schools.
The NYSUT outreach project is part of the American Federation of Teachers’ 30-state “Back to School for All” initiative to go door-to-door to engage families, students, educators and school staff to promote vaccines; return to full-time, in-person learning; and support students’ social, emotional and academic needs.
The initiative includes a statewide television ad that will air until mid-September. It is intended to highlight the social and emotional learning that can only happen in the classroom.
United University Professions, the NYSUT local representing academic and professional faculty on State University of New York campuses and health centers, is also running one of the AFT’s 60 outreach projects.
Working with parents, administrators and communities, the $5 million “Back to School for All” program champions a return to five-days-a-week in-school instruction after 18 months of unprecedented turmoil and a mutating virus as demonstrated by the troubling surge in the delta variant.
“Schools are critical for our kids’ recovery,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten, “and this moment is an opportunity to fund our future fully and equitably, to create public schools where educators want to teach, parents want to send their kids, and kids can learn.”
Albany’s Franz expressed appreciation “to the statewide union and the AFT for recognizing this is a priority for all of us.
“Teachers want to see their students in classes,” she said. “That’s the gold standard.”