With the opening of schools just days away, last month, the city’s teacher’s union sent a memorandum to school officials and the Board of Education, looking for a negotiated series of protections and protocols in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Four weeks after schools opening, the city’s schools chief said no agreement has been finalized, but talks are ongoing.
“At this point, we haven’t reached an agreement, but we have made progress. Since we are in the middle of a negotiation, I believe that’s all I can say at this time,” said Superintendent of Schools Neil C. Cavallaro this week.
In the memo, union officials were concerned about COVID-related work conditions and adaptations to the work environment that would have to be made. Cavallaro said once schools opened, Sept. 8, operational procedures went from the abstract to the concrete and have settled into routine.
“Now that we’re more than two weeks into the school year, things are settling down. Most of our supplies have arrived, although some are still on backorder, because everyone has the same needs. I believe most teachers recognize that we’re doing the best we can under the circumstances to keep everyone safe,” Cavallaro said. “ One thing that is certain, is that once students arrive, teachers are doing all they can to educate them. They’ve been reassuring and very positive. Their professionalism has really shown through.”
In the memo, union officials listed some concerns about outbreaks and what would happen in the case a student tested positive, as well as online learning and classroom procedure. The schools chief believe the system has weathered the opening and now will face things as they come, preparing the best way possible for those events.
”I believe we’ve created a very safe learning environment for students and staff. Most recognize that. We are certainly doing our best to address any concerns, but in my opinion, everyone is doing their best to adjust to a new normal,” he said.
Cavallaro was asked if there have been any union/administrative problems in the first few weeks regarding protocols. He didn’t get into specifics, but said all parties were working to adjust to new rules and guidelines as they come from the state.”
This is a learning experience for everyone involved,” he said. “Recommendations and guidelines from the various state and local agencies change and evolve as new information becomes available. The amount of information can be overwhelming. All parties are doing their best to learn and understand them.”
Regarding anything that arises in the course of the school week, the schools chief is taking a pragmatic approach.
“As I said earlier, we’re trying to address concerns as they arise, and I believe most recognize that. In short, there have been few disagreements, and we’re working towards an agreement to resolve any outstanding issues. I believe we all have the same goal of educating our students in a safe and orderly environment,” he said.
As with many school systems throughout the state and country, some teachers have opted out of the year due to medical concerns, Cavallaro admitted it has been a daunting task to fill those spots, but the strain is exacerbated by other constraints.
“We have several teachers who are out due to being at a higher risk for getting the virus. We also have several who are out on FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act). That continues to be a challenge for our school district as well as most around the state. Our priority has been to make sure that all classrooms are covered with certified teaching staff, and we’ve accomplished that. As teachers begin to return from leave and more staff becomes available, we’ll be able to provide students with additional support,” he said.
Cavallaro said now that schools are open under the half-day plan first implemented by the Board of Education, plans are being drawn up to tackle things for the days after pandemic restrictions are lifted. But also remain fluid enough to refine plans already in place.
“We are in the planning stages of how to lengthen the school day and eventually get back to a full day. We are also refining our distance learning model. Currently about a third of our students have opted for that model. We’re continuing to monitor the metrics and trends of the virus, and our goal is to be able to adjust immediately given the new set of circumstances,” he said.