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“Future Forward” helps schools build back better

If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it’s that public schools are the centers of our communities. They teach students how to think critically; inspire them to become lifelong learners; and help them to become caring and productive citizens.

Unfortunately, the pandemic also highlighted the chronic inequalities in our education system. Too many families live in poverty. They don’t have access to health and social services … face housing and food insecurity … and lack access to reliable transportation. Many also lack dependable access to the Internet, a big problem, since connectivity is essential to school and workplace success.

With these problems laid bare, returning to a pre-pandemic “normal” is neither possible nor acceptable for our education system. We have an opportunity to build the schools our students deserve, and we have a moral responsibility to do so.

To help realize these goals, NYSUT convened the “Future Forward Task Force on the Future of Public Schools,” a group of exceptional educators from across the state who, for over the course of several months, brainstormed suggestions for how to improve education for students and educators post-pandemic.

We compiled a report of the findings and, over the next few months, we’ll be advocating for legislators to lead New York State’s schools into a new era of progress for all students.

Since our public schools play such important roles in our communities, we need to provide better support for them. During the pandemic shutdown, schools provided free meals for all students, regardless of their families’ ability to pay. That one change significantly reduced food insecurity in our communities. In partnership with our affiliates, NEA and AFT, NYSUT is advocating to have no-cost, school meals made permanently available to all students.

Childcare is also a concern, since many students care for younger siblings before and after school due to a lack of affordable options in their communities. A viable solution to food insecurity, childcare shortages and other needs, is expanding the state’s network of community schools. Community schools offer much more than academic instruction. They provide families with vital services like dental care, food banks and job and career resources at a convenient, central location – a local school building.

We’ve also got to address school staffing shortages and improve the workforce diversity within our schools. Typically, when we talk about shortages, we mean teachers. But our schools today need so much more -- bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, teaching assistants and teacher aides.

And since students continue to suffer from the aftermath of a once-in-a-generation pandemic, we desperately need more school psychologists, social workers, counselors and nurses to support students’ social-emotional needs. NYSUT advocates having at least one full-time social worker, school psychologist, school counselor and registered nurse in each school building to meet student needs.

We also need to repeal the state’s punitive receivership law, which pressures educators to “teach to the test” to raise student scores on standardized tests. The over-emphasis on test scores sentences students to endless rounds of practice ELA and math tests at the expense of other learning opportunities like social studies, science and the arts.

As professionals, teachers should have the flexibility to provide instruction that addresses the needs of students without fear of reprisal from the state if scoring benchmarks fall short. Struggling schools need experienced teachers the most. But thanks to the receivership law, many talented educators are driven away from them by the unrelenting push to increase test scores.

Today, we’re at a crossroads.

We have the chance to provide a solid foundation for our students, one that helps them thrive academically, socially and emotionally. As we begin the slow return to normal, let’s make the smart choice. Let’s give public schools the resources they need to help students, and their families, succeed.

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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