In statement, ask for more safeguards
This week, the presidents of 50 teacher and staff unions in the Mid-Hudson Valley posted an “open letter” (below) addressed to communities in Putnam, Westchester, Orange and Rockland counties.
Among the signers were Andrea McCue of the Haldane Faculty Association, Robin Waters of the Garrison Teachers Association, Michael Lillis of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers, Ryan Odell of the Putnam Valley Federation of Teachers and Catherine Armisto of the United Staff Association at Putnam-Northern Westchester BOCES.
We feel compelled to write to you in a shared voice, as there are universal elements to our concerns about re-entry into the schools this September. It is important to note that this is a discussion about re-entry, not reopening. The education of children is, and has always been, our top concern. One truth that cannot be ignored as a necessary precursor to any successful model of instruction is a safe learning space. Though we will open this September for instruction, the only question is the modality of that instruction.
All districts in New York were required to create a re-entry plan that addressed three options: full virtual, hybrid, and full in-person instruction.
The hybrid model is the most popular one for re-entry, but it poses significant risks. The hybrid model requirement gained traction in the state early on, but unfortunately, most of what we have recently learned about COVID-19 and children calls the safety of this model into question.
These risks are not a reflection of inadequate efforts by any one district or administrative team in protecting the children and staff in their schools. Rather, they are inherent inadequacies when a system designed around instructing students is tasked with creating learning environments that will protect children and teachers during a viral pandemic.
Additionally, there has been a failure in state and federal governments to ensure that adequate testing, personal protective equipment (PPE) and HVAC filtration systems are readily available.
The requirements for the district plans were provided by the governor’s office and the state education department in the middle of July and they were to be completed by July 31. The governor even added new testing and contact tracing requirements in the first week of August.
To create truly safe reentry plans districts would require more time, direction and resources. It is telling that neither the state nor federal governments have provided additional resources to help ensure a safe re-entry. Districts have been on their own.
Educators approach every task with a “can-do” attitude. Throughout the months of July and August, teams in each district leaned in and got the job done. The plans were made and it is truly impressive work. The problem, however, is that they are plans to meet government requirements for safety; they are not necessarily plans to make the schools as safe as they can be.
The limits of these plans could be seen close to home this summer when the Greenburgh-North Castle school experienced an outbreak of COVID-19, despite meeting or exceeding all Department of Health guidelines and having a very small student population.
As anyone with any experience planning school events can attest, even the best plans on paper never match what happens once actual students are brought in. Every plan assumes a well-behaved student body that will follow all directives and maintain masks and social distancing, even during hall passing. Plans assume we will be able to hire enough leave replacements, substitutes and monitors to supervise students in the next three weeks. This will not occur. When schools reopen with the potential of being understaffed, it will make an already unsafe situation even worse.
In every survey conducted about reentry, the most important condition people have is that the schools be safe. The phrase “Maslow before Bloom” [i.e., that basic human needs must be addressed before learning can occur] is never more applicable than the current situation. It is irrational to expect students will be able to learn in any reasonable manner, when their teachers and classrooms are constantly conveying the need for vigilance in mask-wearing and social distancing.
The constant need for vigilance cannot help but be internalized as fear and anxiety. At best, schools will be more similar to a well-meaning prison than an actual rich learning environment where thoughts can be shared and joy can be expressed.
Before we can return to schools we must be sure that every reasonable precaution has been met in order for schools to be safe. The goal cannot be to just mitigate risk, but to create the safest possible learning environment. Many of these requirements go well beyond the capability of an individual school district and require action at the state or federal level. We may feel powerless to secure what is necessary; that, however, does not change the reality of its necessity.
To ensure that in-person instruction begins safely, every school district should be putting into place the following measures that create the highest health and safety standards for our students, teachers and staff:
■ All building-wide HVAC systems must be upgraded to a minimum of MERV-13 filtration, and if existing systems cannot be upgraded, portable units with HEPA filtration must be available for all indoor spaces.
■ There must be uniform standards for COVID testing that help monitor asymptomatic spread. COVID testing must provide accurate and reliable results within 24 hours in order to monitor asymptomatic spread. The current wait time can be as high as 12 days, which is not adequate to help prevent the spread by asymptomatic individuals in our schools.
■ Supply lines must be prioritized to deliver all necessary PPE to schools in a timely fashion. All schools must have an adequate supply of PPE at all times, including enhanced PPE for students and employees who require it.
■ Districts must be able to guarantee that there is sufficient staff to supervise students and provide instruction, even as individual staff members are absent for illness or quarantine, child-care, or personal leaves.
■ There must be a 100 percent virtual option for teachers and students who are medically compromised.
■ Plans should require a minimum 14-day shutdown once closed for COVID-19 issues.
Last year was the most challenging instructional year any teacher experienced. There is no teacher who looks forward to beginning the year using remote instruction. Everything about teaching virtually is more complicated. For educators, their classroom is their space. It is where they conjure children’s dreams and give them the tools to fulfill them. Computers are sterile imposters that rob the experience of the richness of our relationships with our students.
Educators and students need to not only feel safe, but must actually be safe in their working and learning environments. Districts need to strive to meet these expectations. There is too much at stake to fall short of the safest possible model.