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Testimony regarding remote learning and the impact of the coronavirus on the city's schools


Testimony before the New York City Council Committee on Education

My name is Michael Mulgrew, and I am the President of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). On behalf of the more than 190,000 UFT members, I would like to thank Chairman Mark Treyger and all of the members of the council’s committee on education 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 on 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 students work on their class film projects.
  • A pre-kindergarten teacher on Staten Island arranged virtual playdates each Friday because her students craved 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 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 viral 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, texts 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.

Our members 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 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 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 addition to the union’s academic working sessions, the UFT is examining safety protocols 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 fewer. 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 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 the 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 expected and 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 get more 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.

UFT programs invest directly in students and teachers

I would also like to assure committee members that funds you commit to UFT programs go directly to students. All UFT programs are designed to eliminate barriers to learning and so are particularly well-suited toward overcoming the academic, emotional and financial challenges the COVID-19 crisis has created for our students and their families.

United Community Schools seeks $7 million in FY21: Our UCS community school directors (CSDs) stepped up to the challenge created by the epidemic. They are making sure academic tutoring continues for students as well as the provision, albeit remotely, of spiritual wellness, counseling and therapy, and extracurricular activities, including music and sports. Some CSDs have created a parent chat so experts can directly speak to parents. Our UCS social workers have enhanced their role by observing virtual classrooms to identify struggling students, conduct¬ing outreach to find students who have not logged on to virtual classrooms and providing counseling to families who have been directly affected by COVID-19. UCS seeks to expand these direct services to students and school communities in the upcoming school year. Understanding the disproportionate effect COVID-19 has had on low-income communities, UCS schools will play a vital role in supporting these students and their families. We seek a significant expansion of mental health services by hiring more social workers, who have been instrumental in providing direct clinical support and programming at our UCS schools.

Positive Learning Collaborative (PLC) seeks $2 million in FY21: PLC has played a critical role during the current crisis. Since remote learning began in March, PLC has conducted ongoing needs assessments for each of its 25 schools to provide the most needed interventions. PLC is providing virtual support to school leaders and educators through restorative circles focusing on grief, loss and trauma so they can care for themselves and learn strategies to support students and families facing similar challenges. PLC has begun developing and sharing content via social media platforms in the areas of self-care, yoga/mindfulness and providing professional development for staff so they can help students when they return to school. Daily interactions with PLC on social media are in the tens of thousands. PLC plans to provide more support to school communities during the next school year. School staff will need a greater level of support to meet their own needs as well as the needs of the children and families they serve. PLC has the expertise to support schools in responding to the mental health needs of their communities.

UFT Teacher Center seeks $9 million in FY21: The UFT Teacher Center, the union’s signature professional development program, is playing a vital role in keeping NYC educators linked to each other and connected to their students during this period of remote learning. The Teacher Center staff is knowledgeable in both the technical aspects of distance learning and in online instructional material and virtual classroom support. At a time when most schools are shuttered, the Teacher Center staff is answering calls from teachers across the city who need help with their virtual classrooms and working with staff at individual Teacher Center sites to provide supports tailored to those schools’ needs. The Teacher Center can help educators translate lessons built around personal interaction into an online format. They are also developing online professional learning around both remote learning tools and content. We thank the New York City Council for your first-time allocation last year. Next year, we would like to expand our program into additional schools including those in the Bronx Plan, to provide professional development on remote learning. Additionally, the Teacher Center is well suited to help educators align their classroom content to the state’s new Next Generation Learning Standards.

Teacher’s Choice seeks to preserve $20 million baseline: Teachers buy everything for their students: pencils, notebooks, microscopes, geology kits, warm coats and food. Teacher’s Choice, a City Council initiative, reimburses teachers for $250 of those expenses. During the COVID-19 crisis, this program continues to prove its value. When our classrooms closed abruptly, many teachers left their schools without the supplies they needed to continue instruction. We want to thank you once again for baselining this program last year and urge you to maintain your strong advocacy for this program to ensure its preservation.

BRAVE Mental Health Hotline seeks $326,400 in FY21: Our BRAVE mental health program continues to operate its free hotline and online chatting services, offering direct services to students and their families. We know many families are experiencing grief, stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, loss of income and other problems that are exacerbated or were caused by the current crisis. Because of these new stresses, we reconfigured the program to provide students and families who contact BRAVE with information about programs that offer assistance. The UFT seeks to continue to combat bullying through BRAVE and to expand this vital program to provide students and families additional mental health support, which we anticipate, will be in high demand during the upcoming academic year.

Dial-a-Teacher seeks $350,000 in FY21: After a brief pause to adjust to remote teaching, Dial-a-Teacher resumed its support service in April, focusing on language arts and math home¬work assistance for students in grades K-5. Thanks to our new online platform, students can chat with teachers about their homework questions. Students can, for example, take pictures of a question or draw out math problems and submit them to a Dial-a-Teacher staffer. We hope Dial-a-Teacher will soon offer all of it regular services in multiple languages and in all subject areas. The UFT would like to expand this program’s online presence by enhancing the online app for students and procuring digital curriculum for multiple subject areas, in addition to updating our maintenance efforts. The current crisis has pushed us to expand remote teaching for all students; our Dial-a-Teacher program must follow suit.

Closing thoughts

These are extraordinary times. I know we are resilient, and we shall overcome by working together. 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 our thoughts are with them. We will continue to do what we can to offer support. 

Related Topics: Coronavirus