John Lawhead is the Chapter leader at East NY Family Academy. John ran with UFT Solidarity in 2019 for Executive Board and has been a union activist for many years.
How Sustainable is the Reopening?
Nobody was arguing that remote learning is better than students being in school. The question was how soon could on-site instruction could be phrased in safely during the still continuing COVID-19 pandemic. The mayor has urgently pressed for starting the experiment as soon and as widely as as possible despite serious obstacles.
Those obstacles include the huge expense (according the Independent Budget Office it is costing the city an extra $ 31.6 million a week to add the staff, equipment and testing needed to use school buildings during the ongoing pandemic).
Another factor is the views of students and their families changing to become less and less favorable toward on-site attendance. Still another recent complication is vocal dissent from the school administrators’ union which a few days ago declared no confidence in the mayor’s ability to preside over the reopening and called on the state to intervene.
Of course the greatest obstacle for schools remaining open is very likely to be the pandemic itself. The surging infections could quickly make a mockery of all the safety protocols and check-lists that have been put in place. The NY Times reported on a NYU study that concluded the current plan for random testing will fall short of enabling anyone to see how the pandemic is spreading. According to one researcher more extensive testing could have useful for the city.
The mayor’s control of the schools is top-down and rigid. That’s evident in the way the high infection rates in neighborhoods most acutely affected is subsumed under the city-wide average when it comes to pausing the reopening. This means that by the time the city-wide infection rate reaches the magic number of 3 percent, infection rates in certain neighborhoods could be in the double digits!
New Pressures for Teachers: With What Protections?
Most people know that during the summer the UFT leadership was alarmed by the apparent poor planning for a safe reopening and considered calling a strike in September in spite of the harsh penalties of the Taylor Law. They instead won a delay from the mayor and since then with several formal agreements have been able to exert influence on the DOE’s plans and policies.
The first Memorandum of Agreement promised that on-site instruction, blended instruction and remote instruction would be treated as separate roles. School administrations were expected to make an effort not to combine these roles in giving teachers their school assignments. In fact, it was often beyond the control of the school not to do so. The UFT reported hundreds of violations and the DOE agreed to hire thousands of educators to fix this. The push to hire more teachers has both ended the threat of layoffs but also outraged many school administrators and was apparently part of what pushed them toward the declaration of no confidence.
Another effect of that agreement was to make the live-streaming or recording of lessons a decision left to the teacher. It has also given teachers some discretion in deciding how blended learning is carried out.
The second Memorandum of Agreement concerned the ability of more UFT staff to work remotely with the permission of their school administrations. Staff in all job titles when they do not have on-site responsibilities can request to work remotely. This covers both those who have full days of remote responsibilities as well as those with on-site assignments who have work that can be done remotely when no students are present in the school building. That agreement went into effect on Monday, October 5.
The second agreement also provides a way to accommodate schools that have instructional programs that violate the agreement on blended learning. This will be done by opening the School-Based Options (SBO).
The UFT website has FAQs and answers on a range topics relating to the reopening.