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Renewed focus on District 75 as students return

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Teachers perform temperature checks
Jonathan Fickies

Members of the Building Response Team, including speech teacher Judith Winter (center), perform temperature checks as students arrive on the first day of in-school learning at PS 188 in the Bronx on Sept. 21

District 75 schools, along with 3-K and pre-K sites, opened their doors for students on Sept. 21, a week before the rest of the school system. That early opening date was fraught for many members of District 75, which had received less attention over the summer from the Department of Education than other community school districts before the UFT stepped in to compel the city to take action.

"Your advocacy brought the many safety and staffing issues in District 75 to Mayor Bill de Blasio's attention," UFT President Michael Mulgrew wrote to the district's members on the day of the announcement of the phased-in reopening. "Now we have an unprecedented opportunity for your district to finally get the support and focus that it always should have received in our school system."

UFT Officials speak to the press on the first day of school
Erica Berger

Allister Johnson (at microphone), the chapter leader at P811 in Manhattan, speaks at a Sept. 21 press conference on District 75 students’ first day back while (from left) UFT President Michael Mulgrew and teachers Miguelina O’Connor and Steven Chirieleison look on.

In the days leading up to Sept. 21, District 75 chapter leaders scrambled to report every outstanding safety issue to the union. The UFT relayed those reports to the DOE for immediate response.

Personal protective equipment that had been stuck at many District 75 main sites in early September was finally distributed to satellite sites. Central staff with special education licenses, among others, were redeployed to fill some of the staffing vacancies in the district.

"We stayed true to our core value in advocating for our students and staff by making sure everyone would be safe," said District 75 Representative David Doorga.

District 75 was tapped to go first because in-person learning is particularly important for its students, who rely on a constellation of specialized instructional and related services for their education. But the challenge of creating a safe work environment was greater since many special-needs students cannot wear masks and District 75 staff cannot socially distance themselves while providing many of the services and supports required by these students.

"If the membership does not feel safe, education goes out the window," said Margaret Negrelli, the chapter leader at P370 in Coney Island.

Negrelli said she was happy to learn that the city was giving District 75 priority. "Now if something breaks, we're not Oliver Twist saying 'Sir, can I have some more?'" she said.

Sarina-Ann Raffa, the chapter leader at P811 in Little Neck, Queens, said the union moved quickly to address ventilation issues at her school's eight sites. "They were checking vents and filling out the right documents," she said. "They contacted the necessary people."

Lauren Chiara, the chapter leader at P721 in Pelham Bay in the Bronx, said HVAC issues were dealt with at the main site and problems with thermometers for temperature checks at her five sites were rectified with the right battery.

District 75 chapter leaders said the first week back was full of the challenges.

"We're trying to take deep breaths, get information out there and make sure everyone is safe," said Negrelli.

Alexander Reich, the chapter leader of P373 on Staten Island, said there was little time to prepare for instruction and programming wasn't finalized at his school by Sept. 21. "There was a lot of craziness in a short time," he said.

Nonetheless, Reich said, "Every teacher came ready to teach with open arms. We made sure kids and staff were safe."

Chiara said her members carried the day at her school, too. "Our best asset is our ability to work together as a team and communicate with one another," she said. "We're all in this together and if we don't communicate, how do we get things done?"

At P177 in Fresh Meadows, Queens, Chapter Leader Steven Mintzer said teamwork ultimately prevailed over differences in his chapter.

"There were a lot of heated conversations between remote and in-person teachers when we just got back," he said. "But when they started seeing the kids, all the tension drifted away. That's what we're here for. Everyone feels better with the kids back."