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Andrew Pallotta: Back-To-School Starts Now - Put Pandemic's Lessons To Work

Years from now, many people won’t remember March 18, 2020 — the day that New York state schools closed for in-person instruction due to the covid pandemic. But it’s a day that I’ll never forget. It’s the day that forever changed the role of technology in the classroom and forced us to rethink how we educate students.

Looking back over the past year, I often think about the lessons we’ve learned in the months since — lessons we must now put to use as we strive for a better normal in September.

More than anything else, the past two years have been a powerful reminder of the dedication and commitment of New York’s teachers and school professionals.

They rose to every challenge to serve students and families, quite literally morning, noon and night. It was awe-inspiring, and we must never forget the vital role they play as members of our communities. This has to be one of the top lessons of the pandemic.

But we also learned — many times over — that there’s no replacement for in-person instruction. We need in-person instruction for all students right from the start this fall. One of the lasting lessons of the pandemic is the value of human interaction. Project-based learning, academic collaboration and socialization have infinitely more impact in person.

Prioritizing full in-person instruction means two things. First it means that there should be no state mandates requiring districts to offer a remote option. And secondly it means there should be an end to concurrent teaching.

The practice of concurrent teaching essentially asks educators to teach two classes at once — the one physically in front of them and the one on the screen. It’s been frustrating for students and teachers alike, and it isn’t a long-term best practice.

If there’s one-word educators have used most often during this school year, it’s burnout. And concurrent teaching is a leading factor in burnout, leaving educators feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

The pandemic has taught us that we’re all in this together — educators, parents and administrators. And only by working together can we craft school reopening plans that help students recover from two years of academic and social-emotional challenges.

For educators specifically, professional development is crucial. But so too is simply saying thank you. School staff who have put in double time for more than a year to hold one-on-one meetings with their students … to answer parent questions well into the night … and to revamp their lessons for a virtual world … they need to hear that they’re valued and supported by their communities.

Federal and state lawmakers got that message this year. They recognized the value of public education by investing in it. Thanks to years of tireless NYSUT efforts, lawmakers allocated significant resources for education this year. That money is poised to go toward community-identified needs like more counselors, smaller class sizes and new enrichment opportunities for students.

But let’s remember — these issues aren’t pandemic-specific. These problems existed before 2020. To address the root causes of these problems, and ensure the same issues don’t reappear later, we must ensure the funding is used properly and that the funding is maintained.

As we prepare for the start of the new school year in September, let’s work together, as a community, to improve public education by having productive conversations. The pandemic taught us a lot of tough, but useful, lessons. Let’s put what we’ve learned to good use.

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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