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'Fantastic journey' awaits course-takers

New York Teacher
A zoom screenshot of RTC members

UFT retirees are taking to the new Zoom courses, such as this Holiday Sing-Along with the Choraleers seminar given by the Staten Island Learning Center on Nov. 18.

In the fall of 2019, the Si Beagle center in Queens could only accommodate 25 retirees in an exercise class. Now, in a positive twist during these difficult times, the size of the class is unlimited and registration is up 75%, thanks to Zoom.

The surge in registration for the 215 courses offered this fall in the Si Beagle catalog is due to the extraordinarily swift and efficient switch retiree section coordinators and instructors have made from on-site classes to online classes. The pandemic has forced retirees to become remote learners along with the city's public school students.

"Due to the extraordinary circumstances caused by the pandemic, we have quickly and successfully adjusted to the new world of virtual courses, seminars and meetings," RTC Chapter Leader Tom Murphy noted, "and our retirees are soaring into the future unbounded."

One of the benefits of membership in the Retired Teachers Chapter is access to the Si Beagle Learning Center, a retiree program run by the UFT Welfare Fund for the past 28 years. Classes, virtually all taught by UFT retirees, run the gamut from knitting to tap dance to watercolor painting to learning how to play the guitar. The trips, dining and theater experiences and special events typically offered by the Si Beagle Learning Center have been canceled this year.

The registration fee is $10 per course and $2 per seminar. Registration is by coupon with a check or money order.

Fall classes are offered from September to December, with a mid-August registration deadline. Spring classes run from March to May with a February registration deadline.

The Si Beagle catalog is mailed in January and July and is available online under Quick Links in the Retired Teachers Chapter section of the UFT website.

In the tri-state area and Florida, 4,900 retirees are registered for fall 2020 Si Beagle courses and seminars, and registration for the January-February intersession courses stands at 1,500 and rising.

"Our talented instructors, unfamiliar with remote teaching and learning, took a chance with us on this fantastic journey," said Gino Giustra, the director of retiree programs.

Giustra noted that with Zoom, retirees now can register for classes that are far from where they live. A retiree on Staten Island, for instance, may now attend a class in Suffolk County on Long Island or in Florida.

Ira Faber, the Suffolk County retiree coordinator, once struggled to find physical spaces to hold his Si Beagle classes each fall and spring. Now that's not a challenge. Retirees no longer have to worry about being closed out of a class when it reaches capacity because space is now unlimited. And if that opera class you've always wanted to take is being offered miles and miles away, you're invited to sign up.

"A year ago," Faber noted, "people asked, 'What's Zoom?' Today, it's part of our vocabulary."

He cited the "come as you are" convenience of Zoom with no "schlepping" and no trouble parking. Having remote Si Beagle classes, he said, has also tempered the isolation for retirees who are not able to leave their homes.

There's no question that the transition to Zoom was a challenge for the Si Beagle coordinators and instructors as well as those retirees who are not technologically savvy.

"We learned from each other," Faber said. "It was very collaborative."

Instructors were willing to learn how to become remote teachers like their in-service colleagues. Only a tiny minority dropped out. But the transition did require around-the-clock, labor-intensive work to get the Zoom courses up and running. Then the coordinators and instructors offered individual help to those retirees who had trouble adapting to Zoom.

"We've gotten lots of compliments, good wishes and understanding for this launching," Faber said. "And I dare you to tell me of any other organization that offers this to their members. We're unique."

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