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President's Perspective

Meeting the challenges together

New York Teacher

This new school year is shaping up to be unlike any other. We face serious challenges on multiple fronts at the same time: We must protect our safety and health. We must teach and support our students in the best way we know. And we must fend off the threat of layoffs coming from the mayor’s office.

Our journey began in March, when we succeeded in forcing the mayor to close the schools as the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear. We lived through a collective trauma in New York City in March and April. No school system in this country has had to face what we have endured. We lost 68 of our in-service members to the coronavirus.

That is why I vowed we would not return to our buildings unless adequate safety procedures are in place.

In March, the city dragged its feet closing the schools. This put our members, our students and their families in grave jeopardy. Yet only when we threatened to strike in August did the mayor push back the first day of school for students and agree to a comprehensive safety plan approved by independent medical experts. Our current plan has more aggressive policies and greater safeguards than any other school system in the nation. That is the power of our union in action. We will not have a repeat of March.

If we learned anything since the spring, it’s that we cannot wait for the city to act. If we want anything to get done, we will have to do what public school educators do every day: We will have to take matters into our own hands and get it done ourselves.

Medical experts have told us that regular testing of staff and students is pivotal given what we now know about the asymptomatic spread of the COVID-19 virus. Under our Sept. 1 safety agreement, the city will be forced to conduct rigorous, randomized testing every month among staff and students alike. Every school building must pass a 50-point safety plan before it opens. The UFT sent teams to every school building over the summer to document the readiness of each building to safely reopen. Chapter leaders gave us regular status reports on the outstanding issues.

A COVID-19 building response team in every school is crucial to monitor adherence to these safety protocols. You should immediately notify your chapter leader and your school’s building response team of any violations. The agreement we were finally able to reach with the city means nothing unless we make it real in every building. This is what we must do to keep our students and staff — as well as their families and our communities — safe for the duration of this pandemic.

A building that is found to be unsafe will be closed, and those students will go all remote. Full stop.

The delayed opening also gave us time to set up our classrooms, gather curriculum and reflect on the many lessons learned in the spring. We need this time this year more than ever. Setting up for a normal school year is such a tremendous amount of work — but setting up for 2020–21 involves rising to meet extraordinary challenges.

Now our task is to hold the city to its promises so we can keep each other safe while giving our students the support they need and the best possible education during this difficult time.