CAPITAL REGION -- Over a dozen teacher union leaders from across the Capital Region on Tuesday called for delaying in-person instruction, citing insufficient state and federal resources to effectively implement reopening plans.
The union leaders of 16 area districts – among them Schenectady, Amsterdam, Duanesburg, Niskayuna, Schalmont, Scotia-Glenville and Shenendehowa – signed an open letter urging the delay.
“The health and safety protocols that our school leadership teams are feverishly working to develop cannot be fully implemented without additional support from the federal and/or state government,” the union leaders wrote in the letter.
The teacher leaders said school should begin next month virtually before transitioning to in-person learning in October “if deemed safe and appropriate given the circumstances that exist at that time.”
The letter outlines a series of measures the unions believe every district should take before reopening schools. Those include upgrading HVAC filter systems, ensuring access to timely COVID-19 testing, establishing a stockpile of personal protective equipment, creating a pool of substitutes ready to fill in for symptomatic teachers and requiring any school with a positive COVID case to close for 14 days (which is not required under any official guidance).
Teachers also cited a litany of unanswered questions ranging from whether they will teach in person to how they will ensure students adhere to distancing procedures.
"I don't think we, meaning the teachers, nor the school district, really has a handle on what we are about to do," Mary Eads, head of the Niskayuna teachers union, said Tuesday. "I get a funny feeling we are going to do it by trial and error, and the stakes are too high for that."
School district superintendents, though, on Tuesday said they were still on track to open schools to students next month, and listed the many steps districts have made to stockpile masks and other protective equipment, redesign school layouts to ensure social distancing and purchase technology used to monitor student health and track whom they may have come in contact with. They also acknowledged some of the exact details will have to be worked out as students and teachers come back to school buildings. They said they were working every day to address concerns and iron out more details of what reopening will look like. Administrators have argued delaying the start of in-person school could mean educators miss a chance to meet their students face-to-face to establish a relationship for the rest of the school year -- including in the event schools have to transition back to an all-virtual format.
"Considering the uncertainty, we have done everything we can to meet or exceed those CDC guidelines," Schalmont Central School District Superintendent Thomas Reardon said Tuesday. "When it comes to safety, we spared no expense and will spare no expense."
In Schalmont, the district's three schools have been outfitted with new air filtration systems -- so-called Merv 13 units -- recommended but not required in state guidance, he said. The district has also stockpiled three different types of face masks and pallets of hand sanitizer, Reardon said. The vast majority of students in the district - over 85 percent - have opted for in-person instruction, a sign to Reardon that families want to see schools reopen to students.
"That's 88 percent that want to return and feel safe to return, that is pretty telling to us," Reardon said.
Teacher leaders in districts across the state have called for delays to in-person instruction in recent weeks. Most Capital Region districts are scheduled to start in-person instruction for students in school buildings Sept. 14. While Ballston Spa school district officials have delayed the start of in-person instruction there until Oct. 5, other district leaders have resisted the idea of a delay to in-person instruction, arguing plans are being implemented and there is no need to delay bringing students back to school.
Greater Amsterdam School District Superintendent Rich Ruberti already delayed the start of in-person instruction to Sept. 21, giving the district time to ease into the school year before welcoming students back to buildings. With over 40 percent of families in the district selecting to start in an all-virtual option, district officials plan to limit the number of students in schools to about one-quarter of what they would typically hold, he said. Some students will come into school for orientation prior to Sept. 21, and teachers will be in classrooms teaching students remotely for the first few days of the year, under current plans.
"It's basically a soft opening to see how everything works," Ruberti said Tuesday.
The district has also purchased Merv 13 filters - though they have yet to arrive - and administrators continue to meet with teachers and address their concerns, Ruberti said. He said he thinks the district is still on track to open to students for in-person instruction on Sept. 21, but he also pointedly left open the possibility of a change if administrators, teachers and the school board felt that was best for students.
"Until we really feel ready, our schedule is flexible enough to stay with all remote," he said.
Teacher union leaders from the following districts signed the open letter: Albany, Amsterdam, Canajoharie, Cohoes, Duanesburg, Granville, Greenwich, Niskayuna, Northville, OESJ, Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk, Schalmont, Schenectady, Scotia-Glenville, Shenendehowa and Troy.
Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, said the letter came together as union leaders from across the region shared common concerns about the logistics of reopening, continued delays in COVID-19 testing around the region and impending cuts to school funding, as opposed to the boost in money educators say is needed to cover the added costs of reopening plans.
"Although the letter says we are asking for a full virtual start to allow for more time, the important piece is we need resources," Benaquisto said. "The reality is we are two weeks away and we don't have the best ventilation systems in place, we don't have any resources coming our way, the teachers don't have assignments yet ... there are so many things making reopening so challenging."
The teachers have also been careful in crediting the tireless work of administrators in making plans this summer and preparing to bring students back to school. They have emphasized teachers' desire to return to classrooms with students as soon as possible. While the teacher leaders hope administrators slow down the process of reopening schools, they also promise to be there for their students on day one - wherever that may be.
"If our districts say we are reopening as intended, then we are going to do that work," Benaquisto said.