Once again, the UFT leadership and Department of Education have come to an agreement that makes small nods toward reason, while leaving unanswered major questions that school staff, parents, and students have been asking for months. This latest agreement is basically full-scale acquiescence to the mayor’s underfunded, unsafe, understaffed, and instructionally unsound blended learning plan.
We demand an agreement that meets the real needs of our communities, most urgently fully remote instruction until January.
We are glad the UFT and DOE have come to the commonsense conclusion that teachers, paraprofessionals, and other school based staff should not risk exposure to COVID-19 by commuting across the city and sitting with colleagues in poorly ventilated spaces in order to teach remotely. Because even the tiny progress made in this agreement does not take effect until October 5, this simple ask comes too late for Pre-K and D75 staff who have begun working with students in person this week and certainly too late for the tens of thousands of teachers who are slated to begin teaching in person on Tuesday and Thursday.
Countless UFT members who have been needlessly working in person since September 8 have been exposed and potentially exposed other members of our communities to COVID-19 for work that all parties now acknowledge could have been effectively done at home.
The other provisions of this agreement are similarly, and in some cases far more, problematic:
“Option” to work remotely:
- This agreement provides for any teacher who “is a documented primary caregiver of a family member that they live with and who have conditions that make them at higher risk for COVID-19 related complications as per the CDC,” to be able to work remotely. This at first appears to be progress, since these teachers will not have to unnecessarily expose loved ones to a potentially deadly virus, but teachers may only take advantage of this provision “to the extent possible and as soon as practicable”, not to mention that many school-based staff members live with individuals at high risk without being their primary caregivers. Should teachers with spouses who are at high risk find separate living accommodations so they may continue to work in person without risking their loved one’s life, as seems to be required under this agreement?
- Remote accommodation for school-based staff who live with individuals with increased risk for complications from COVID-19 cannot be contingent on whether their school has a remote job opening. As teachers we are continually enraged at the low value placed on the lives of all stakeholders in discussions of school reopening.
- This agreement allows certain teachers without medical accommodations to work from home if their teaching program allows without specifying a process by which the determination of who receives a fully remote program. This in effect leaves these decisions to the sole discretion of administrators who may or may not work with their UFT chapters to ensure such decisions are made equitably.
- We are worried that this provision to allow some teachers, but not all, to work remotely will be used to drive a wedge between remote and non-remote workers. In any fair society, no school staff would be denied the option to do their job from home during a global pandemic. In fact many of the issues resulting from the mayor’s disastrous reopening process may have been prevented if as a city we started from the point that all school staff could choose for themselves whether to stay remote and reopen based on the number of staff who affirmatively choose to return to teach in person.
- Some UFT represented employees, including occupational and physical therapists, will now have somewhat more flexibility to complete remote work from their homes safely. This is a welcome change, of course, but once again the DOE and UFT leadership are making changes only at the margins and at the last possible moment. These critical service providers must once again replan their schedules in coordination with administrators and families that have already been asked to schedule and reschedule at a moments notice classes and services that students are entitled to. Further, these providers are still tasked with a higher workload than prior to the COVID-19 crisis, with no additional compensation or approval of this apparent contractual change. The UFT must actually represent all of its member interests when at the bargaining table and not simply make undemocratic give aways for the sake of convenience.
- Paraprofessionals, under the new position of Paraprofessional Classroom Manager (PCM), receive high-risk duties for a stipend of $1750, including alarmingly supervising indoor lunch, during which students will be maskless. Since we know that COVID-19 can linger in the air for a great deal of time, particularly in poorly ventilated spaces such as our school buildings, it is unconscionable that these staff members are being put at such a risk for a paltry premium. If we are asking people to risk catching a deadly virus (which we should not be doing), these people should be entitled to hazard pay.
- The agreement leaves unsaid where the additional paraprofessionals to fill these roles will come from given the current teacher hiring catastrophe currently unravelling and whether the funding for these stipends and the per session for covering classes will come from schools’ budgets or central.
- There is like to be a subsequent shortage of paraprofessionals because many are called away to risk their lives supervising lunch or covering classes when teachers are quarantining or inevitably calling out at higher rates than past years (as recommended as one of the city’s “core four” strategies to lower risk of COVID-19 transmission). The effect of this staffing shortage is alarming for its potential consequences on students who are entitled to support from a paraprofessional, but their school cannot find a qualified person for that role. Will students who are entitled to support from a paraprofessional be forced to go without so paraprofessionals can supervise groups of unmasked students?
- Coverages of remote classes rely on remote teachers to still provide asynchronous activities for their students or use activities created by Virtual Content Specialists (VCS), a position that ignores the expertise and hard work in the spring from our city’s dedicated school librarians. To our knowledge few, if any, schools have been able to hire such a position since they are not centrally funded as initially promised. Essentially, this plan asks remote teachers to still work while they are sick or use activities created by an individual that exists in the mayor’s proposals, but not in reality. We wish our union leadership would negotiate from the reality we live in and not the one inside the mayor’s head.
- This agreement leves the grievance process frozen, as it has been since the onset of the pandemic in March. For our union leadership to immediately and repeatedly give up one of our bedrock rights as union members is unconscionable. UFT members have no regular recourse when there are breaches in our contract. These breaches are instead allowed to continue while our working conditions, and in turn our students’ learning conditions, deteriorate. Times of upheaval are when our rights must be most closely guarded, but instead our union leadership has indefinitely kicked the can down the road, leaving UFT members and students at the mercy of those with greater institutional power. We have been fighting this dangerous roll back of our union rights for months and will continue to do so, regardless of whether or not union leadership believes our contract can be ignored when convenient.
- This agreement provides for chapters to call SBOs to adjust from the rigid plans forced on schools by the DOE. While we are cautiously optimistic about this change, this is another instance in which we are left waiting for “further guidance” that we needed months ago in order to ensure the needs of all stakeholders are met. Combined with the continue freeze in the grievance process, we are concerned this provision could be used to force schools to enact this dangerous, unsound blended learning plan without providing even the limited resources and staff promised by the DOE.
Unfortunately, this agreement and previous agreements over the past weeks and months are deeply flawed and do not address the problems our communities are facing. This is a predictable byproduct of undemocratic decision-making on the part of our union leadership who have made clear they are willing to give up virtually anything if it means President Mulgrew can announce a deal with this administration.
Not mentioned at all are the DOE policies that disregard scientific evidence on indoor transmission. Specifically, the elevated risk factors of poor or non-existent ventilation, over 5 hours in the same classroom with others, removing masks for indoor eating, and the unproven assertions that open windows alone will refresh room air 5-6 times per hour.
We sincerely hope that our union and city leadership immediately take seriously the actual needs of our students, teachers, and communities. It is not too late to take an equitable approach to schooling during this pandemic that ensures every community member is safe and every student receives the education that they are entitled to.