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Testimony regarding the development of a statewide blueprint to reimagine education in the new normal


My name is Michael Mulgrew, and I am the president of the United Federation of Teachers. On behalf of the more than 190,000 UFT members, I would like to thank Chair and SUNY Empire State College President Jim Malatras, council member and President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten, and all of the members of the Reimagine Education Advisory Council for allowing me to share with you the experience of New York City educators and school personnel with remote learning during the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis, as well as to provide you with some thoughts as we work through how to safely reopen our public schools. 

While our educators may not be physically present in classrooms, they continue to be an important presence in the lives of our students and their families. Our city’s educators did the unthinkable, the unimaginable, something we thought was years away. In one week, our city’s teachers moved our entire education system from the classroom to remote learning at home.

Some said it could not be done, but we rose to the occasion. It has not been perfect, but our educators have now built the foundation for all remote learning. It has been their ingenuity and dedication that showed us what education will look like in the new normal. Today, I say with pride that our city’s teachers are better than ever, ready to tackle all of the challenges that lie ahead to ensure we provide the best education to our students. 

Remote learning in NYC during the COVID-19 pandemic

Sunday, March 15, 2020, is a day to remember. Though we urged the city to close our schools before then, NYC finally decided to shutter schools. Teachers and school-based professionals spent the following week training on remote learning. Then, for the first time in our city’s history, our members engaged students, from dining tables or basements, living room to living room, and resumed school.

Tens of thousands of teachers and school-related professionals are keeping learning alive for children. They now have first-hand knowledge of what works and, as important, what doesn’t. UFT members created their own playbooks on how to remotely engage their students. From teaching the classics to evaluating a student to providing guidance, our members are doing it all.

I want to share with you examples of our educators’ successful virtual classrooms. 

  • A Bronx high school film and English teacher created a “green room” in his apartment to help his students work on their class film projects.
  • A pre-kindergarten teacher on Staten Island arranged virtual playdates each Friday because her students crave playing with each other. 
  • Educators in Queens start each morning with a mental and physical yoga workout for autistic students, followed by their journal and writing work.
  • A 4th-grade math teacher in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, loves giving live lessons, especially when parents sit in. She has even added one-on-one Google Meets for students who cannot make the appointed class times, often because a parent or sibling needs to use the household’s sole computer, tablet or cell phone.
  • The staff at a Manhattan transfer high school, which serves over-age, under-credited students, captured their teens’ attention with a schoolwide program called “The History of Me.” Students share and reflect on their experiences through the pandemic.

Educators have also stayed emotionally connected to students, doing whatever they can to help students and their families handle the pandemic.

  • A middle school social studies teacher in Corona, Queens — a virus hot spot — collected donations from colleagues and arranged help from a local supermarket. After virtual school, she and her crew of volunteers buy food and staples and deliver them to more than 200 of her school’s families.
  • A Bronx social worker answers his students’ calls, text, and emails until 3 in the morning. Often, they just need someone to talk to when they can’t stop crying.
  • An elementary English-as-a-New-Language teacher in Brooklyn keeps teaching one of her students even though the family recently moved to Colorado during the pandemic. He couldn’t enroll there, so she and her school still work with the family.
  • A Harlem math and science teacher strives to keep a dedicated student focused. The pandemic has forced the student’s extended family to double up so now one adult and seven children all share the same cramped quarters.

Hybrid learning model for 2020-21 school year

Parents, possibly more than ever, understand the value of a teacher. Parents have learned during this unique time what goes into teaching — that it is a skill, a craft, a calling that requires endless reserves of empathy, creativity, patience and humor.

New York City educators now have experience in remote learning, and they also have the desire to expand their work for summer school and for when school starts in September. UFT officers have been holding working sessions on remote learning with educators across grade levels, subject matters, and disciplines. Our front-line educators shared these thoughts with us:

  • We launched distance learning with little planning — September 2020 cannot be a repeat of that. 
  • Come the 2020-21 school year, some students will need make-up time, and many will need emotional support. One approach is to prioritize social-emotional support and feedback during in-person sessions. Perhaps, we can also use the in-person time to teach technology skills to students and families, so everyone has a better experience during remote learning sessions.
  • Teachers want to retain flexibility in instruction and ways to engage students. They love live instruction — seeing their children, picking up on the non-verbal cues. However, some have reported the most vulnerable students are disproportionately the ones unable to log in at specific times. Educators say they would like to keep a mix of live, small group, and individual instruction, as well as develop additional ways to post material and content so students can access it when they and/or their families have time. 
  • Students and parents have a better experience with streamlined platforms. The more students have to juggle multiple apps and platforms, the more time is lost.
  • Educators report a deeper partnership between parents and teachers — one that needs to be maintained and nurtured when we return to school buildings.

This September, we are planning for all possibilities including a hybrid of in-person and remote learning. In preparation, in addition to the union’s aforementioned academic working sessions, the UFT is examining safety in the buildings as well as other technology for use in schools. 

On April 29, I wrote an op-ed in the Daily News enumerating what we need to do to safely open schools in the fall. I mentioned the challenges we need to think through as we consider what a school building looks like with social distancing. 

The biggest challenge we face right now, however, concerns the state, city, and school budgets. We have to assure parents that their kids are walking into safe buildings. We have to assure our school personnel of that as well. We have to set up new protocols that inevitably come with new costs.

To get them through this crisis, New York City students, parents and educators need more resources, not less. We still don’t have a school nurse in every school building, and I doubt any parent will gladly send their child to a school without a nurse these days. We still don't have a guidance counselor, social worker or school psychologist in every school. 

All of it will take money. I am asking you to think big and provide our students with the same resources as when we bail out corporations or an industry.

Focus on school funding: Protect direct services to students

I understand that these are extraordinarily tough times and we may face financial challenges for years to come. However, we have to be strategic. Cuts to school budgets have been proposed for the upcoming school year, and I would like to let the members of this council know that we do not take this lightly. We are also concerned about the possibility of even more reductions due to a lack of support from the federal government.

In collaboration with our state and national affiliates, NYSUT and AFT, and our New York congressional delegation, we want the education stabilization fund replenished and we want our state and local governments to receive funds to make up for the significant budget gaps. I would argue that our advocacy has been successful. The U.S. House of Representative’s HEROES Act includes $90 billion for the education stabilization fund, $500 billion for state governments, and $375 billion for local governments. 

We will continue to push the HEROES Act through the U.S. Senate and finally to the president’s desk for signing. Just last week, we launched our “Pass the Federal HEROES Act” campaign because our schools need a lifeline. Through this campaign, we will leverage our relationships across other states to influence key U.S. senators. Our New York senators support this vital legislation, but we need to more senators to get on board. 

With these efforts in play, now is not the time to consider cutting school programs, especially mental health services. We need to protect FY21 school budgets. We need to protect programs that provide direct services to students. 

Closing thoughts

These are extraordinary times. But I know we are resilient, and we shall overcome by working together. I’ll end by saying we will never forget the 67 UFT in-service and 56 UFT retired members who have died so far because of COVID-19 or related complications. The union wants their families to know that our thoughts are with them and we will continue to do what we can to offer support.  

Related Topics: Coronavirus