Failed DOE-UFT Reopening Deal: Larger Class Sizes, Little COVID-19 Testing, and a Lack of Rank-and-File Voice

The UFT needs to negotiate a remote start to the school year now (or two months ago)

Over the past week, members at dozens of schools with positive COVID-19 cases have been in confusion around the protocols for closing schools and having members work remotely. This is eerily reminiscent of the city’s failure to listen to health experts and develop and execute health protocols effectively during the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. 

The UFT’s agreement with the DOE for the fall 2020 reopening of schools was confusing and ineffective when it was signed and still is now after its first week of implementation. Instead of hiring more teachers, counselors, librarians, nurses, and social workers, the city has invested in non-union nurses and Virtual Content Specialists. Learning Labs, part of a city program to support students who do not need educational spaces during days that they are not attending their school building in-person, are a welcome addition but are also underfunded and understaffed. 

Since March of 2020, the UFT has frozen the contractual grievance process and rank-and-file members, chapter leaders, and even many UFT officials have remained unaware and uninformed of the UFT’s position on many issues, notably the clear and ongoing violations of appropriate standards of health and safety in work environments, both in the spring and now. 

Union president Michael Mulgrew has expressed concern and anger over the reopening process, yet he has continued to allow the DOE to dictate procedures. It is time to demand a blended learning agreement that begins with a remote start to the school year. 

The MORE-UFT Caucus calls for a delayed reopening of school buildings until the UFT develops a new agreement that addresses the weaknesses described below. In addition, the UFT needs to adopt an ongoing pressure campaign for increased wealth taxation and reorganization of public funds to education and social services and away from the super rich and policing and prison systems. Any agreement between the UFT and the city must be put before the full active union membership. In the event of the proposal of such an agreement, the UFT also must begin an aggressive chapter organizing program, so that it can build strike readiness in every building and every school. 

Why is this deal weak? [note: full agreements are cited at the bottom]

Approval of Agreement

“The agreement…presented to the union’s Executive Board and Delegate Assembly.”

The UFT needs to put any single agreement before the full UFT membership. It has not done so since the 2018 contract, despite massive shifts in our working conditions. The current agreement significantly changes the terms of the 2018 contract which the members ratified. 

Basics

“It is not the intention of the parties to create an undue burden on any UFT member. Such concerns and the terms set forth herein shall be subject to the dispute resolution process defined in the March 20, 2020 MOU, as modified by any subsequent agreement.”

The March 2020 Memorandum for remote learning is still unknown to every Chapter Leader in our city. Simply put: Where the hell is it? Or has it disappeared in the past, the same as those spring break days that we worked without compensation? And again, when will members get to vote on any agreement? Won’t they be the ones who can determine if it seems likely to lead to conditions that are “an undue burden” or not? 

Staffing for Remote, Blended, and In-person 

“All efforts shall be made to assign teachers to a program that is exclusively of one type (in-person or fully remote or blended remote). In the limited instances where a teacher has a partial program of one type, the balance of the teacher’s program may be of another type.”

In the immediate, this deal is problematic because the in-person/remote separated instructional operations are absolutely unworkable based on current staffing, a result of chronic underfunding of the school system. A UFT officer reported to Chapter Leaders at a recent meeting that principals citywide applied for an average of 9 teachers each; this would mean the city would need to hire about 15000 more teachers, at the same time that the city is threatening to lay off a similar amount of public school workers this fall. 

Fully Remote Teacher

“Teachers assigned to a program of fully remote students will engage with their students every day in both synchronous and asynchronous learning.”

Administration can essentially require live instruction if you teach remotely. To be honest, we all knew this was coming after the disaster that was the DOE’s nonexistent design for remote learning in the spring. But it’s only workable if you get rid of “Blended Learning Remote” teachers, which would require an entire paradigm shift in the DOE’s reopening strategy. What is a “Blended Learning Remote” teacher? Glad you asked…

Teachers Reporting to Buildings: “Blended Learning On-Site” or “Blended Learning Remote” 

“Blended Learning On-site Teachers”: 

  • “The total number of students an in-person teacher shall serve in the classroom will not exceed health and safety guidelines for social distancing, not to exceed contractual class size limitations as per the CBA.”

“Blended Learning Remote Teachers”: 

  • “The total number of students a blended learning remote teacher shall serve per teaching period shall not exceed a number that is twice the contractual class size limitation as per the CBA.” 
  • “The total number of students for whom a blended learning remote teacher may be responsible for shall be up twice the full class size limitation x the typical number of teaching periods as per the CBA (Example in HS: 2 x 34 x 5 = 340).”
  • “Blended Learning Remote Teachers will provide synchronous instruction to all students in the team caseload not on site that day.”

“On Site” means the teachers will teach in-person and have limited but vague remote responsibilities. They will follow a normal schedule and class size won’t exceed CDC recommendations (~10 students). 

“Blended Learning Remote” are teachers who are on-site and may also be responsible for in-person instruction or remote instruction during different periods. They may be double-tasked with providing synchronous virtual instruction and in-person supervision of students. While the deal does say “All efforts shall be made to assign teachers to a program that is exclusively of one type”, many principals will be and are attempting to give double-tasked duties to these teachers, due to the staffing shortages mentioned above. Class size issues also arise from this, as we will explain more below. 

Instead of decreasing class sizes for the Blended Learning Remote teacher by hiring more teachers, the DOE instead is hiring Virtual Content Specialists. How is there money for a meaningless bureaucratic position but not for teachers, counselors, or other student-facing school staff? 

Virtual Content Specialists 

“The VCS will provide instructional content for both onsite and remote instructors….Create instructional content aligned to the course scope and sequence and relevant learning standards that can be uploaded to a school’s chosen learning platform. Instructional content will include video recorded mini-lessons, supplemental assignments, materials differentiated for a variety of learners, and sample rubrics and grading criteria…Curate instructional content to make it available to other teachers…Where applicable, collaborate with teachers during the instructional coordination period…”

Hopefully, principals are smart enough not to hire anyone for this position. That would mean they’d be more intelligent than the city bureaucrats and union bureaucrats who came up with this contractually-vague and professionally-vague position. Also, don’t school librarians already exist? Let’s hire more unionized employees who already have all these qualifications. 

Class Sizes 

“For Blended Learning Remote Teachers, the total number of students a blended learning remote teacher shall serve per teaching period shall not exceed a number that is twice the contractual class size limitation as per the CBA.”

The UFT has not negotiated lower classes sizes in over 50 years. In 2006, the state Supreme Court ruled students were deprived of their constitutional right to a fair and appropriate education, through chronic underfunding of schools, as evidenced in excessive class sizes. The current reopening blended learning agreement, coupled with givebacks in online learning pilots in the 2018 contract, sets a dangerous precedent for future class sizes. 

For example, Blended Remote Teachers in high schools go from having a maximum of 170 students per day across 5 classes to 340 per day across 5 classes (and 250 to 500 for physical education teachers). While class sizes for on-site teacher must follow CDC guidelines, meaning the likelihood of class sizes coming anywhere near to these amounts is uncertain, it stil sets a horrible precedent, as well as speaking to the “undue burden” that will be placed on these teachers, who will sometimes be responsible synchronous live instruction while also monitoring a group of in-person students who may or may not be taking part in the same course. What happens when a student in your room needs you but you are in the middle of engaging live online instruction? It’s untenable. 

Testing 

“A blind representative sample, comprising 10% to  20% of all students and adults from every NYC DOE school, will be selected each month for COVID-19 testing, with results available within 48 hours.   All random COVID monitoring tests will be free of charge to participants.”

“The presence of a COVID-19 case or cases confined to one class will result in the entire class moving to remote instruction; more than one case in a school will mean that the entire school will move to remote instruction until the contact tracing is completed.”

The UFT previously had argued for universal mandatory testing before school community members re-entered buildings. While this would still fall short of regular rapid testing, which would be the most ideal testing plan, it at least required a baseline of universal testing. Now, only 10-20% of students and staff will be tested in schools, and that won’t begin until October 1, after which there already will have been over a week of in-person school. While random, sample testing can be effective in some contexts, a more rigorous program of regular, rapid testing is necessary for the first phase of reopening. 

Further, the DOE has failed in the first week of teachers reporting to schools to be transparent about and follow through consistently on its above agreed protocols for closing schools that have cases. 

Tracing 

“Students or staff found to have the virus, even in the absence of symptoms, will be quarantined for 14 days. City tracing teams will be dispatched to school immediately to determine potential contacts.”

City government and the DOE failed to protect us in March, and have not demonstrated an ability to do so now. Thus far the Test and Trace corps have failed to conduct interviews in a timely manner. The experiences at MS 88, where staff were not informed immediately of the positive infection, the investigation was deemed complete before one person exposed was contacted by T&T, staff were made to return to the school building despite not hearing from T&T, and it took the T&T four days to interview teachers who were in close contact with a COVID-positive colleague, are more common than not, and represent an abject failure of the City and the DOE to safeguard the health of teachers, students and our families.

Nurses 

“…the assignment of a school nurse to every building.”

What about School Nurses, who are UFT members? During this global pandemic, we know there are still nurse vacancies throughout the district. UFT President Michael Mulgrew said all summer that schools without a nurse would not reopen. School nurses need 6 weeks of training and will not have orientation and supplies they need by the 21st. This job posting shows the DOE is hiring them outside the normal processes in order to make its promises seem like reality. Why are new hires non-union, without union-protected health benefits, qualifications, or healthcare? And why is this per building and not per school? Many buildings have thousands of students and multiple schools; we need a dedicated nurse per school.

Citywide COVID-19 Percentages

“Schools will need to switch to 100 percent remote instruction if the percentage of positive tests in New York City are equal to or more than 3% using a 7-day rolling average;  however, even if the overall case rates across New York City were to remain low, all school buildings could be closed  if there were recurrent, uncontrolled outbreaks in schools of COVID-19.”

“Any New York City zip code that reports a percentage of positive tests of 3% or higher using a 7-day rolling average will be saturated with additional testing and tracing including, but not limited to, increased testing of individuals in schools, opening new testing sites, door-to-door canvassing and targeted robocalls for at least a 14-day period or until such time as the 7-day rolling average for positive tests is below 3%, whichever period is longer.” 

They have already demonstrated an inability to test and trace with only teachers in buildings. Are we to believe that their competence rises with the number of COVID-19 cases? This defies all logic, and completely ignores their historical performance on these matters. New York State nurses have argued how reopening schools in NYC would lead to a resurgence of COVID-19 cases. 

Building Standards

“The decision on whether to re-open a building to students will be based on the UFT 50-item safety checklist, including social distancing of student desks, the availability of masks and face shields, and a room-by-room review of ventilation effectiveness.”

Schools are opening despite not passing all the items on the checklist.  The DOE is not testing to see if there is adequate air exchange, nor is it providing MERV-13 filters for all vents. 

Accommodations for Special Education Students 

Please read and sign MORE’s special education reopening letter. One important detail about the bell schedule and its effect on special educations students: 

  • “The DOE’s programming guidance suggests that students will receive uninterrupted instruction in a single classroom from 8:30-1:59, including during lunch. It is deeply inequitable to expect students with disabilities — many of whom receive IEP-mandated breaks during testing — to remain in a small area within one classroom for the entire day. Students with disabilities already face a higher rate of discipline than general education students, and social distancing and mask requirements will exacerbate this inequity. In addition, we are concerned that paraprofessionals, who are invaluable in providing social-emotional support for students with disabilities, may be unavailable to students due to social distancing guidelines or repurposed for temperature-taking, hallway-monitoring, and other non-instructional duties.” 

Programming for Special Education Students 

Also, the MORE special education reopening letter discusses the issues with current DOE guidance on special education programming: 

  • In the DOE reopening plan, there was no guidance given to principals on how to maintain and effectively operate ICT, SETSS, and 12:1+1/15:1 classrooms in community schools. The legal ratio of 40% students with IEPs in an ICT setting may be ignored in favor of creating a more standardized schedule for the school, pushing students into self-contained special education settings, or general education classrooms without a teacher trained to meet their needs. There is no guidance on how SETSS can be administered safely in the hybrid model: if in person, both push-in and pull-out instruction will increase contact between staff and different groups of students, heightening transmission risk. If SETSS is administered remote-only, students will lack those IEP-mandated services when they are in the school building. Finally, no details have been provided to address the unique needs of special classes (12:1+1 or 15:1) in a NYC DOE non-specialized school. We have major concerns about the ability of the DOE and individual schools to provide students’ legally mandated special education services without clear guidance on class grouping and staffing.”

___________________________________

Without a deal that will send our students into safe and fully funded schools, we cannot send members to work in buildings. The UFT must demand and deliver a remote start that increases the budgets and staffing for Learning Labs to provide support for students who are housing insecure, children of essential workers, or otherwise in immediate need of in-person educational support. 

INSTRUCTIONAL AND GENERAL CONDITIONS: https://www.uft.org/sites/default/files/attachments/Blended_Learning_MOA_executed.pdf

TESTING AND OTHER COVID-RELATED: https://www.uft.org/sites/default/files/attachments/coronavirus-school-testing-policy.pdf

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