"You have all gone above and beyond the call of duty," UFT President Michael Mulgrew said at the UFT's annual Teacher Union Day on Nov. 7 that honored the courage and hard work of members during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"You took on the challenge and made a difference in people's lives in schools and hospitals," Mulgrew said at the event at union headquarters in Manhattan.
Teacher Union Day celebrates union activists today and commemorates the 1960 strike that created the UFT as we know it. Last year's event was canceled when the virus was surging; this year's event was hybrid. Attendance at Shanker Hall was limited to the honorees and their families, and all 234 had to show proof of vaccination. Another 600 members joined virtually via Zoom to pay tribute to their colleagues.
The event's theme — "Family, That's Who We Are!" — spoke to the bonds that were forged and strengthened during an extraordinary time.
"It was a chaotic and scary time, a moment of great danger, but also a moment that showed how important public schools are," AFT President Randi Weingarten said in her remarks.
Ellie Engler, a former UFT staff director and an industrial hygienist by training, received the union's top honor, the Charles Cogen Award, for her outstanding work with the UFT Health and Safety Department — a department she helped create in 1996 — to make sure schools were safe to reopen. Engler also helped expedite vaccinations for members, and she set up COVID-19 testing programs in schools.
"We would not be here without the work of Ellie Engler," Mulgrew said. "Because of her work, the largest school district in the United States could reopen safely."
Tina Puccio, the director of the union's Member Assistance Program (MAP), received the Jules Kolodny Award in recognition of her efforts to meet the mental health needs of UFT members during the pandemic. Under Puccio's direction, MAP ran an array of small support groups, launched a telephone careline and organized a special "Let's Talk About It" series to give members a chance to discuss their struggles and challenges during the pandemic.
"We all had to show up — and show up in a different way," Puccio said in accepting the award. "All UFT members became frontline workers."
The entire UFT Health and Safety Department received the Backer-Scheintaub Award for emerging union leadership for its role during the pandemic — including visiting 1,400 schools in 10 days in September 2020 to make sure they had adequate ventilation and an adequate supply of personal protective equipment.
"This team went to hell and back, and it was a pleasure going to hell and back with you," said Jeff Povalitis, the department's director, as he accepted the award for his staff.
The Heart of It All Award was presented to the members of the Federation of Nurses/UFT, who worked long hours to aid the sick and dying during the height of the pandemic, when families could not enter hospitals, and to the members of the School Nurses chapter, who were reassigned to regional enrichment centers and city health facilities in the pandemic's early months and then monitored student wellness and allayed fears when school buildings reopened in September 2020.
The Ely Trachtenberg Award for activism, communication and unity during the 2020-21 school year, was presented to chapter leaders at 51 elementary schools, 14 middle schools, 16 high schools, three District 75 schools, three District 79 schools and two functional chapters.
Chapter leaders also were recognized for service milestones of 10, 15, 18 and 20 years.
The David Wittes Award, given to a person or group showing outstanding dedication to the ideals of the UFT, was presented to Jackie Bennett, who managed the Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE), a joint UFT-Department of Education program that allows schools to modify the contract in order to experiment and innovate at the school level. Bennett was also instrumental in helping the union find a way to incorporate student learning measures in teacher evaluation.
Jamel Holmes, a special education teacher at East Bronx Academy in the South Bronx, received the Audrey Chasen Award, named for a teacher and mentor who died in the crossfire of a gunfight. During the pandemic, Holmes has been delivering care packages of food, detergent and other items to the families of former and current students in need.
The Sidney Harris Award, honoring an outstanding leader in special education, went to Kerry Yefet, a UFT liaison to the city DOE's Division of Specialized Instruction and Student Support, for her advocacy on behalf of the more than 200,000 students with disabilities in public schools.
The Marsh/Raimo Awards, which recognize political action, went to Karen Davis, Zelideth Diaz, Gregory Monte, Raphael G. Tomkin, and Anne Wine, as well as retiree activists John Franzese, Katherine Lewis and Juan Sanchez.
The Albert Lee Smallheiser Award for educators who strive to improve the working conditions of their colleagues went to Patricia Crispino, Leo Gordon, Matt Kirwan, Mitchell Klages-Bombich, Seung Lee, Alain Metellus, Susan Perez, Rana Quamina, Daniel Rodriguez and Joseph Surpris.