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Students return despite challenges

New York Teacher
A parent uses his tablet to document the first day of class for this new 1st-grader at PS 81 in the Longwood section of the Bronx.
Bruce Cotler

A parent uses his tablet to document the first day of class for this new 1st-grader at PS 81 in the Longwood section of the Bronx.

UFT members with the support of their union helped pull off a successful — albeit difficult — return to in-classroom instruction during a phased-in reopening that incorporated 500,000 students from every grade by Oct. 1.

District 75, 3K and pre-K students returned on Sept. 21, while elementary school and K-8 students went back on Sept. 29 and middle and high school students returned on Oct. 1. About 48% of students chose fully remote learning. After the UFT’s intervention, the mayor twice delayed and reconfigured the reopening of buildings due to safety and staffing concerns.

“The UFT will make sure the policies are correct and that all the equipment and supplies that are needed are there, but in the end it is these folks — the educators — who make sure their school is safe, make sure their students are safe and make sure that the families of the students know that coming to this school is safe,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said as students reported for their first day at University Neighborhood HS on Manhattan’s Lower East Side on Oct. 1.

EP coordinator Kristine Balmire and school counselor Nick Pisani (right) greet a student at PS/IS 266 in Jamaica, Queens.
Pat Arnow

EP coordinator Kristine Balmire and school counselor Nick Pisani (right) greet a student at PS/IS 266 in Jamaica, Queens.

Emily Blatt, the school’s chapter leader, said the reopening took a huge effort by the staff. “It feels like the last school year never ended,” she said. “We remained in constant communication with the administration, the dean, the instructional leadership team and the rest of the staff. It was a long, tire-some battle. Today is what we’ve been working toward the whole time.

”Teacher shortages marred the reopening at some schools. The union on Oct. 14 began escalating operational issues complaints on staffing after giving the mayor several weeks to fill the thousands of positions he had promised.

At PS 32 in Brooklyn, Chapter Leader Kimberly DeStefano said her members are overextended and exhausted. “Blended learning requires more staff and we’re not getting anybody,” DeStefano said. “The principal has requested staff, and no one has shown up. Our members are working long hours and weekends in order to do the best job for the students. They’re doing three or four different jobs. Members are working out of license. The mayor did not keep his promise.”

At PS 42 on Staten Island, Chapter Leader Ann “Bunny” Resnick said teacher shortages had resulted in a series of untenable programs such as: the school’s kindergarten teachers are doing all three learning models — in-person, blended and remote; the 3rd-grade teacher assigned to full remote is also doing blended learning; and English as a new language, Special Education Teacher Support Services and IEP teachers were teaching fully remote when their students needed in-person support.

What PS 42 teachers are tasked with, she said, is “horrible.”

Anna Elmas waits with her daughter Mira, a 2nd-grader, outside PS 15 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on the first day of class for elementary school students.
Jonathan Fickies

Anna Elmas waits with her daughter Mira, a 2nd-grader, outside PS 15 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on the first day of class for elementary school students.

School aide Elisole Compres (left) and social worker Estephanie Pachucho welcome a student to a school supplies giveaway on Sept. 26, three days before classes began at PS 329 in Queens.
Erica Berger

School aide Elisole Compres (left) and social worker Estephanie Pachucho welcome a student to a school supplies giveaway on Sept. 26, three days before classes began at PS 329 in Queens.

To help fill some of the vacancies, the UFT negotiated a financial incentive for substitute teachers who took on-site assignments between Sept. 29 and Oct. 30. A per diem teacher who worked 15 days in a school during that period will receive a $1,000 incentive above the contractual rate of pay.

At PS 100 in Coney Island, Brooklyn, Chapter Leader Joanne Bullaro said having started the school year fully remote helped ease the transition back to the classroom on Sept. 29.“

We got to interact with our students prior to their return and got to see them without a mask and engage in conversation and get to know them, so when they came in they were familiar with us,” she said.

School reopening

The DOE, in consultation with the UFT, has issued new protocols and procedures for staff for the 2020–21 school year. The following Q&A answers some of the most common questions about safety, instruction and student support. 

Related Topics: Coronavirus