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A return like no other

Masks, social distancing the norm for members in buildings
New York Teacher
Members masked up as they arrive for their first day of school
Erica Berger

Paraprofessional Lorna Valentin (left) and teacher Edna Laboy are masked up as they arrive for their first day at PS 214 in Brooklyn.

UFT members returning to their school buildings on Sept. 8 for the first time since March had an experience unlike any other.

It was a surreal mix of strange and comforting to be back together with friends and colleagues, albeit wearing masks and social distancing in buildings set up differently than before.

Questions about personal protective equipment and school cleanliness were on the minds of many members who remembered how Mayor Bill de Blasio had put them in harm’s way in March. The UFT had a rapid response team at the ready to respond to problems in schools as they were reported.

When teachers entered PS 88 in Ridgewood, Queens, it was like walking into a time capsule, a scene frozen at the moment when schools shut down. “Teachers came in with a lot of emotion,” said Susan Stark, the UFT chapter leader and a pre-K teacher. “Our bulletin boards still had children’s work on them, books and folders were on desks. In my classroom the students’ 3-D projects were still on display. It was very overwhelming.”

Para Jason Lichtman has his temperature taken
Erica Berger

At PS 37 on Staten Island, paraprofessional Jason Lichtman has his temperature taken by school counselor Jaclyn Scola before he can enter the building.

Each classroom at the school now had a white basket filled with hand sanitizer, plastic gloves, plastic face shields and extra thermometer batteries.

“It’s definitely not like I’ve ever experienced,” said Denise Bullock, the chapter leader at PS 92 in Harlem. “As a group, we’re usually excited to see each other and give hugs.” That wasn’t possible because of social distancing.

“The anxiety levels were high walking in,” said Maria Bucca, the chapter leader at Madison HS in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. “Once you saw your friends, even with the masks on, people started to feel a little better, started to joke and feel less stressed. It felt like, ‘These are my people and I’m OK and somehow or another, we’ll get through this.’”

Denise Salowski, the chapter leader at PS 214 in East New York, Brooklyn, said personal protective equipment — including gloves, wipes and face shields — was plentiful at her school. “Everyone was very happy it went safely,” she said.

Not every school in the city had such a positive experience.

Ten buildings that house 22 schools remained closed on Sept. 8 because of ventilation issues, one of the items on the 50-point safety plan that schools had to pass before a building reopened.

“The schools that were not deemed safe are not opening,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said at a press conference outside one of the schools, the HS for Leadership and Public Service in Lower Manhattan, with AFT President Randi Weingarten on that first day.

Of particular concern were conditions at District 75 schools serving students with special needs. The DOE gave that district, where students are often dispersed among satellite sites, short shrift in the runup to the reopening.

At K368C special education programs @ the New York City Children’s Center – Brooklyn Campus, UFT leadership told educators not to enter the building on the first day because the state-run space did not meet numerous safety standards.

“Teachers literally spent the day on the sidewalk,” Mulgrew said at a press event at the site on Sept. 9. “This is why we fought so hard to push back the start of school. Does anyone think that school was ready to start tomorrow? Anyone? On the safety issues? No.”

Chapter Leader Maggie Joyce of PS 35 in the South Bronx said she believed her members would pull through.

“We’re never going to have normal, but we’ll have a new normal,” Joyce said. “Every now and then in our lives we have these moments, and we have to step up to them.”

— Additional reporting by Sarah Herman, Rachel Nobel and Linda Ocasio

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