March/April 2022 Issue
February 19, 2022

‘We want our kids healthy, and we want them in classrooms’

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source: NYSUT United
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Caption: White Plains TA member Irene Spiconardi, a bilingual eighth-grade math teacher, helps keep students safe — and in school. Photo via AFT.

We’ve all heard the noise.

A small but vocal minority of citizens, local officials, even board members and some parents blame educators — who are on the front lines of the pandemic, striving to keep students, their families and communities safe — for the disruption of the school year.

In Saratoga Springs, a teacher was attacked viciously on social media for trying to help a distraught youngster who showed up at school without a mask. The same week, another educator near Albany was directly threatened by a parent whose high-schooler was sent home for refusing to wear a mask.

Reports of similar confrontations have been reported all over the state. These are the latest examples of NYSUT members enduring unfair challenges to their professionalism and competence while doing all they can to help kids recover and thrive.

“Our union stands with them,” said Andy Pallotta, NYSUT president. “While there are small, vocal elements who unfairly blame teachers, the larger community has shown its understanding and appreciation.” While educators feel the heat in the crucible of understaffed buildings, the majority of parents say neighborhood public schools are crucial to help their children get through this ordeal.

According to a recent survey by the American Federation of Teachers, a supermajority of parents give their schools and teachers top marks for their Herculean efforts to respond to the challenges of COVID–19.

Overall, 72 percent of parents say their schools provide excellent or good-quality education, and 78 percent endorse the quality and performance of their teachers.

In addition, teachers unions are seen by parents as a more positive force in education today than prior to the pandemic, mirroring public polling that shows record-high support for the labor movement as a whole. Visit nysut.cc/aftsurvey.

Still, this unprecedented challenge to public education has completely stressed the system and society in general. But educators are not the problem. They are the solution.

“This false narrative that teachers want schools closed is just that: fiction,” said Kara McCormick-Lyons, president of the White Plains Teachers Association in Westchester. “We want our kids healthy, and we want them in our classrooms.”

Joseph Ricca, White Plains superintendent, agreed. “Unions, teachers, administrators are not keeping children out of school,” he said. “The virus is.”

It’s difficult, in large part, because the students and staff who get sick — especially during the explosive omicron variant surge — are not in class. Flexibility and cooperation are keys to getting through each day.

“Teachers are doing everything they can to not only make up for the kids who are unable to attend regularly, but to cover for each other,” said Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers.

When teachers are absent, after testing positive or to care for their own children who are quarantined, those who are present fill up their day covering colleagues’ classes, as well as their own.

The numbers crunch is a constant challenge. Schools need more teachers, all kinds of School Related Professionals, health care professionals and counselors. AFT President Randi Weingarten recently visited the White Plains and Schenectady districts, both of which have been open all year. She was uplifted by the progress she witnessed.

“From watching pre-K kiddos learning to use scissors, to talking with high-schoolers discussing gender pay gaps, I witnessed educators helping kids succeed while keeping themselves and their kids safe,” she said. “Educators are doing amazing work in horrible circumstances. “This polling shows the virus is our enemy, not each other,” Weingarten said. Parents say, “teachers are heroes for their efforts.”

Even so, recent data from the National Education Association, NYSUT’s other national affiliate, shows staffing storm clouds gathering quickly on the horizon.

Alarmingly, more than half of the responding educators, 55 percent, said they plan to leave education sooner than planned because of the pandemic. Find it at https://nysut.cc/neasurvey.

NYSUT’s Future Forward initiative (futureforwardny.org) prescribes solutions to many of the current problems wrapped in a vision for a better future for public education.

FF outlines how to support schools as the centers of our communities; to support students’ social-emotional needs; to fight for racial justice, which includes the statewide union’s efforts to diversify the teacher workforce through its Take a Look at Teaching initiative; to de-emphasize high-stakes testing; and to adopt best practices for instruction and technology.

“NYSUT is focused on identifying solutions to our challenges that will strengthen the core of our communities — our public schools,” Pallotta said.

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