More than 50 leaders of teachers unions in the Hudson Valley have signed an open letter saying that schools are not ready to open safely.
The letter says that school district administrations have done “impressive work” making plans to protect students and staff, but do not have the time or resources to develop stringent safety measures before fall.
“To create truly safe re-entry plans, districts would require more time, direction, and resources,” the letter reads. “It is telling that neither the state nor federal governments have provided additional resources to help ensure a safe re-entry; districts have been on their own.”
The letter has been signed by union leaders from more than half of all districts in Westchester and Putnam counties.
It says that the “hybrid model” that most districts are considering, which would have students in school part time, socially distancing from one another, “poses significant risks.”
“As anyone with any experience planning school events can attest, even the best plans on paper never match what happens once actual students are brought in,” the letter says. “Every plan assumes a well-behaved student body that will follow all directives and maintain masks and social distancing, even during hall passing.”
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The open letter was initiated by Michael Lillis, president of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers. He said union presidents are trying to raise awareness of common concerns about plans to reopen schools in New York.
“The districts have moved the ball as far as they can with the resources they have,” Lillis said. “But they haven’t been able to close the gap and create safe schools. We need more resources.”
After the letter was posted over the weekend, additional union leaders from Rockland and Orange counties signed on.
Theresa Uhelsky, president of the Minisink Valley Teachers’ Association, said she signed the letter because she is aggravated that the state has issued detailed guidelines for districts to follow without addressing how districts can pay for equipment, staff and more.
“I hope the government and feds realize they underfunded schools for years before the pandemic,” Uhelsky said. “Now it’s a pandemic. How can you not see that?”
‘We’re talking about millions of dollars’
The letter calls for six core safety measures to be put in place before any district opens its doors:
- Upgrade all building H-VAC systems to a more efficient “MERV-13” rating.
- Set clear standards for COVID-19 testing, with reliable results within 24 hours.
- Develop supply lines to deliver protection equipment to schools.
- Guarantee that schools will have sufficient staff even when staff members are absent for quarantine or sick leave.
- Schools provide a 100% virtual option for medically compromised teachers and students.
- Schools that shut down for COVID-19 issues should be shut down for a minimum of 14 days.
The letter emphasizes the need for full staffing if schools opens. Some teachers are likely to work online all the time, while others may need to be away from school for quarantine, sick leave, child care issues and other reasons.
Lillis said that districts had trouble finding substitute teachers even before the pandemic.
“If we don’t have full staffing in our buildings, we will not have a safe learning environment,” he said.
Union leaders are also concerned about a lack of adequate airflow in many buildings.
“You don’t have adequate ventilation in some of the older buildings,” said Mary Claire Breslin, president of the New Rochelle Federation of United School Employees, who recently did a walk through of all the district’s buildings.
“You don’t have screens in the window, so that you could open the window,” she said. “Many buildings have these new fire doors that we’ve been told we can’t prop open to even get cross-ventilation.”
New Rochelle has already announced that instruction will be remote through September, and Breslin said the district has complied with all her requests so far. But for her to begin feeling comfortable with an October return, the ventilation problem must be solved.
Procuring protective equipment, known as PPE, is also a major issue, especially in larger schools, and a serious cost that districts must somehow cover.
“We’re not talking hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Kara McCormick-Lyons, president of the White Plains Teachers’ Association. “We’re talking about millions of dollars for a district this size for hand sanitizer, for masks, for cleaning products. A lot of these materials are on backorder. If you don’t have the PPE, you can’t open.”
White Plains began ordering their materials early, ensuring they have the supplies. But for districts that didn’t get in line quickly enough, procuring equipment can be an issue.
Union leaders also want to know more about what will happen when cases of coronavirus inevitably arise. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that districts must have plans for testing and contact tracing, even though they cannot carry out these activities themselves.
“I was very upset that the testing and the contact tracing seemed to be put back on the districts,” said Vanessa Vaccaro, president of the Ossining Teachers Association.
Vaccaro said that the state Department of Health should develop one protocol for how to handle positive cases. Guidelines issued by the state said that districts will have to work with county health departments to address and resolve cases of the coronavirus.
“We are educators. We are not medical professionals,” Vaccaro said. “To put that on the school district, to me, it’s not appropriate. We need to hear from the professionals in this area.”
Lillis said that testing for coronavirus will be critical. But since school districts can’t do the testing themselves, they will have no control over the speed or quality of outside testing.
“It won’t do any good if test results don’t come back for 7 to 12 days,” he said. “If we don’t find out we have a problem until we’re 12 days into a problem, our problem will have started out as minor but exploded into a crisis.”
The open letter says that teachers want to be in school, but only if it can be done safely.
“There is no teacher who looks forward to beginning the year using remote instruction,” the letter reads. “For educators, their classroom is their space. It is where they conjure children’s dreams and give them the tools to fulfill them. Computers are sterile imposters that rob the experience of the richness of our relationships with our students.”
Chris White, president of the Middletown Teachers Association, said the open letter is addressing common concerns that cut across school districts.
“The landscape just keeps changing,” White said. “No one’s saying ‘let’s not teach.’ We’re saying let’s make everyone safe.”
Times Herald-Record staff writers Rachel Ettlinger and Heather Yakin contributed to this report.
Sophie Grosserode covers education. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @sdgrosserode. Check out our latest subscription offers here.
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