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Andrew Pallotta: School Reopenings Must Be Safe, Responsible

The next few weeks are shaping up to be the most challenging and unique back-to-school season we’ve seen in a century.

In past years, this time would have been dominated with gathering school supplies. For some, the biggest stress might have been planning a vacation before the rigors and routines of the school year start. For others, it might have been finding money in the household budget to replace outgrown school clothes.

But not this year.

This year, parents are having difficult conversations and making the kinds of decisions they never thought they’d have to make. And the choices are all tough. Should they send their children back to school this year? Will it be safe? How will they take care of their children if they stay home?

No doubt about it: this will be a school year unlike anything we’ve ever seen. But one thing hasn’t changed. New York’s public educators are doing what we always do: caring for the kids in our communities – all of them.

Whether in person, at home, or via some hybrid form of instruction, educators are fighting for every student in New York by making sure they have a safe and healthy learning environment. By making sure they’re fed. And by making sure they have fair access to the internet, and the equipment they need for remote learning.

Now more than ever, New Yorkers understand the vital role that public schools play in their lives.

And, as Governor Cuomo recently said, schools cannot reopen without two things: students and teachers.

We cannot expect students to return to schools unless parents are confident their children will be safe.

That’s why teachers’ unions – both at the state level and in every school district – are fighting to ensure school reopening plans are safe and responsible.

As a recent poll of New York educators found, 81 percent of our members believe the health and safety of students and staff should be the deciding factor when it comes to reopening schools.

Educators and parents are in complete agreement: School districts need to err on the side of caution. If there are any questions about safety or if any district’s plan is missing any details, that district must start with remote learning. $$$

For in-school learning, masks must be mandatory and social distancing must be required.  

If there is a single case of COVID in a school, that building must shut down and students learn remotely for 14 days.

These criteria should be non-negotiable.

And, of course, we need to pay for it all. Everyone wants our schools and colleges to reopen safely, but it must be done in a way that ensures the coronavirus doesn’t infect educators, students or staff.

Safely reopening schools costs more money, not less. Without funding to cover the massive costs of PPE, barriers, cleaning supplies and more, local school districts and campuses can’t meet the goal of safely reopening schools.

Instead, even as they’re working on their reopening plans, districts face state funding cuts of up to 20 percent. As result, many are forced to consider layoffs and furloughs. 

Meanwhile, Congress is on vacation — even as communities and families nationwide wait for them to do their jobs. We need them to provide the funding for school reopening plans … the funds necessary to keep students and educators safe.

New York school districts have counted on an infusion of federal aid to help them safely reopen school buildings this fall. But we don’t know when or if those resources will come.

If the federal government fails to provide those resources, New York lawmakers must take action. They need to tax the ultrawealthy and use rainy day funds and borrowing authorities, to provide our schools with the resources they need to reopen safely.

That’s what we’re fighting for. 

This may be a time of change and uncertainty; but one thing stays the same – New York’s public educators are fighting to take care of our children. 

It’s what we do.

Andy Pallotta, a former elementary teacher, is president of the more than 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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