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American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten visits Schenectady schools

American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten chats with a Schenectady High School student in the classroom.
Dave Lucas
American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten chats with a Schenectady High School student in the classroom.

Amid national efforts to keep kids in class this winter, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten toured Schenectady schools Wednesday.

Weingarten has been touring schools across the country, talking with students and teachers about the impact the pandemic has had on school.

"There has been a lot of challenges in Schenectady," Weingarten said. "And the through line has been, educators who, every single day, are meeting the needs of kids. And the least we can do is make sure that our schools are safe, that we have the mitigations that, you know, the public health officials tell us will keep us safe. And understand just how frustrating and exhausting this year and COVID has been for everybody have a little bit of grace for that."

At Schenectady High School, Weingarten told reporters masking, social distancing and other restrictions prompted by the pandemic have led to divisiveness and frustration among parents, students and teachers.

“I'm worried," said Weingarten, "because it would be hard enough dealing with the circumstances of COVID and its results. But when you have the outside toxic teacher bashing, from some armchair pontificators, who are sitting at home, virtually remote, as they're bashing teachers who are in school with kids, that's not good. I understand the frustrations of parents, but we have to work together to help our kids."

Weingarten urges school to prepare for new coronavirus variants, spiking infection rates and teacher shortages. She says COVID has taken a toll on everyone.

"One of the most important features of what's going on in Schenectady now, which hasn't always happened, is that the administration and the union understand that they have to be problem solvers," Weingarten said. "And so I'm so glad to be walking the halls with both the superintendent and with the union leader.”

Schenectady Federation of Teachers President Juliet Benaquisto says the school system is doing everything it can to maintain quality education.

"No one's ever been as committed to our kids as certainly the staff in Schenectady," Benaquisto said. "And that's inclusive of everyone. You know, obviously, I represent the teachers and paraprofessionals. But every part of our organization has been stressed by this. And the fact that the superintendent and I can work really closely together to try to problem solve. We can't fix it all. “

Schenectady school superintendent Anibal Soler says the district has not shut down at all this year.

"We are prepared," Soler said. "We always have a backup plan with remote instruction. But I think, for me, the big testament has been the hard work of our staff, being flexible, covering for each other. You know, when we do have teachers, and we have high absences, our staff has stepped up and filled in to make sure we can stay open for our kids in our community. So you know, we've had a higher number of absences coming out of the winter break, and our teachers have stepped up, our counselors, our social workers have filled in to make sure there's an adult in the classroom with kids. So right now we're in a good spot, and the trend is kind of slowly going down. So we hope that we've kind of gotten through the surge, and can remain open."

Soler says Weingarten’s visit sends a powerful message to the staff, that support comes from the very top. Weingarten also visited Hamilton Elementary School.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.