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Let’s return public schools to a new, better normal

After two years of pandemic disruptions, returning to normal isn’t good enough for New York state students. Our state is in a once-in-a-generation position to properly fund education. And due to the pandemic, students needs have never been more dire. Now is the time for lawmakers to deliver the funding needed to make public schools the center of every community statewide. That’s the message I delivered to lawmakers in late January while testifying at a joint legislative budget hearing on k-12 education.

After NYSUT convened its Future Forward Task Force last summer, we heard directly from a host of education professionals about the kind of support our public schools truly need. What they shared was eye opening.

We heard stories about how A+ students withered under the stress of remote learning. How our youngest students struggled to grasp the skills needed for in-person learning. How mental health professionals, burdened with heavy caseloads, don’t have the capacity to do the proactive work necessary to prevent crisis.

We also heard about longstanding issues. How too many students come to school hungry, but aren’t eligible for free meals … that some families worry about the perceived stigma of applying for meal assistance … and that some older siblings juggle academics with caring for younger siblings because their families lack reliable, affordable childcare.

We also heard how the looming threat of receivership, and an over-emphasis on flawed standardized testing, drives some schools to obsess over boosting test scores rather than adapting to student needs.

But, we also heard stories of hope.

Community schools have been transformative in places like Rome and in New York City. And the pandemic gave educators a glimpse at what they could accomplish with smaller class sizes.

This year, we want to further transform our schools. We need dedicated funding to expand the number of community schools … we need new laws to set minimum staffing levels so there’s a social worker, school psychologist, counselor and nurse in every school … and we need funding to support prospective teachers, particularly teachers of color.

And let’s return the joy of learning by repealing receivership and removing the punitive consequences of standardized testing.

It’s been a difficult two years, and a hard decade before that. But our educators do what they do because they love working with their students.

Let’s make sure that all school staff — from teachers, to nurses, to bus drivers — get the support they need and the respect they deserve. Many of the issues we’re facing today – such as understaffing — are due to an education system that was already stretched too thin. Now is the time to address these problems in a systematic, long-lasting way.

Because respect is about more than saying thank you. It’s about finding real solutions.

And I think we can all agree — our education professionals deserve them.

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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