Friday, August 14, 2020

An Open Letter Regarding Re-entry to Schools

An open letter to the school communities in Westchester, Putnam, Orange and Rockland Counties from the leadership of teacher and staff unions: 

We feel compelled to write to you in a shared voice, as there are universal elements to our concerns about re-entry into the schools this September.  It is important to note that this is a discussion about re-entry, not reopening.  The education of children is, and has always been, our top concern.  One truth that cannot be ignored as a necessary precursor to any successful model of instruction is a safe learning space.  Though we will open this September for instruction, the only question is the modality of that instruction.

All districts in New York were required to create a re-entry plan that addressed three options: full virtual, hybrid, and full in-person instruction.  The hybrid model is the most popular one for re-entry this September, but it poses significant risks.  The hybrid model requirement gained traction in the state early on, but unfortunately, most of what we have recently learned about Covid-19 and children calls the safety of this model into question. These risks are not a reflection of inadequate efforts by any one district or administrative team in protecting the children and staff in their schools.  Rather, they are inherent inadequacies when a system designed around instructing students is tasked with creating learning environments that will protect children and teachers during a viral pandemic.  Additionally, there has been a failure in state and federal governments to ensure that adequate testing, PPE, and HVAC filtration systems are readily available. The requirements for the district plans were provided by the Governor’s office and the State Education Department in the middle of July and they were to be completed by July 31.  The Governor even added new testing and contact tracing requirements in the first week of August.  

To create truly safe reentry plans districts would require more time, direction, and resources. It is telling that neither the state nor federal governments have provided additional resources to help ensure a safe re-entry.  Districts have been on their own.  

Educators approach every task with a “can do” attitude.  Throughout the months of July and August, teams in each district leaned in and got the job done.  The plans were made and it is truly impressive work.  The problem, however, is that they are plans to meet government requirements for safety; they are not necessarily plans to make the schools as safe as they can be.  The limits of these plans could be seen close to home this summer when the Greenburgh-North Castle school experienced an outbreak of Covid 19, despite meeting or exceeding all Department of Health guidelines and having a very small student population. As anyone with any experience planning school events can attest, even the best plans on paper never match what happens once actual students are brought in.  Every plan assumes a well-behaved student body that will follow all directives and maintain masks and social distancing, even during hall passing.  Plans assume we will be able to hire enough leave replacements, substitutes, and monitors to supervise students in the next three weeks.  This will not occur.  When schools reopen with the potential of being understaffed, it will make an already unsafe situation even worse.  

In every survey conducted about reentry, the most important condition people have is that the schools be safe.  The phrase “Maslow before Bloom” is never more applicable than the current situation.  It is irrational to expect students will be able to learn in any reasonable manner, when their teachers and classrooms are constantly conveying the need for vigilance in mask- wearing and social distancing.  The constant need for vigilance cannot help but be internalized as fear and anxiety.  At best, schools will be more similar to socially controlled, austere wards, than actual rich learning environments where thoughts can be shared and joy can be expressed. 

Before we can return to schools we must be sure that every reasonable precaution has been met in order for schools to be safe.  The goal cannot be to just mitigate risk, but to create the safest possible learning environment.  Many of these requirements go well beyond the capability of an individual school district and require action at the state or federal level.  We may feel powerless to secure what is necessary; that, however, does not change the reality of its necessity. 

To ensure that in-person instruction begins safely, every school district should be putting into place the following measures that create the highest health and safety standards for our students, teachers and staff:

  • All building-wide HVAC systems must be upgraded to a minimum of MERV-13 filtration, and if existing systems cannot be upgraded, portable units with HEPA filtration must be available for all indoor spaces.
  • There must be uniform standards for COVID testing that help monitor asymptomatic spread. COVID testing must provide accurate and reliable results within 24 hours in order to monitor asymptomatic spread. The current wait time can be as high as 12 days, which is not adequate to help prevent the spread of COVID by asymptomatic individuals infected with COVID in our schools.
  • Supply lines for PPE must be prioritized to deliver all necessary PPE to schools in a timely fashion. All schools must have an adequate supply of PPE at all times, including enhanced PPE for students and employees who require it.
  • School districts must be able to guarantee that there is sufficient staff to supervise students, and provide instruction, even as individual staff members are absent for illness or quarantine, child-care, or personal leaves.
  • There must be a 100% virtual option for teachers and students that are medically compromised.
  • Plans should require a minimum 14-day shutdown once closed for Covid 19 issues.

Last year was the most challenging instructional year any teacher experienced.  There is no teacher who looks forward to beginning the year using remote instruction. Everything about teaching virtually is more complicated.  For educators, their classroom is their space.  It is where they conjure children’s dreams and give them the tools to fulfill them.  Computers are sterile imposters that rob the experience of the richness of our relationships with our students.  Educators and students need to not only feel safe, but must actually be safe in their working and learning environments.  Districts need to strive to meet these expectations.  There is too much at stake to fall short of the safest possible model. 

Additional Resources:

Hybrid Model Risks



New Information on Children and Covid 19

Cosigning Presidents

Marcia Heffler             Dobbs Ferry United Teachers


Edward Caperna                    USWOM

Michael Lillis Lakeland Federation of Teachers

Nate Morgan Hastings Teachers Association

Vanessa Vaccaro                   Ossining Teachers Association 

Tom McMahon Mahopac Teachers’ Association

Jennifer Maldonado               Hendrick Hudson Education Association

Elisa Rosen                           Hendrick Hudson Education Association

David Wixted Scarsdale Teachers Association

Anthony Nicodemo Greenburgh North Castle United Teachers

Mary Claire Breslin New Rochelle Federation of United School Employees

Samantha Rosado-Ciriello Yonkers Federation of Teachers

Brenda O’Shea Somers Faculty Association

Andrea McCue                       Haldane Faculty Association 

James Groven Irvington Faculty Association

Judith A. Kelly                        Teachers’ Association of the Tarrytowns 

Chris Tyler Harrison Association of Teachers

Jeanne Whelan Tuckahoe Teachers’ Association

Roseanna Cutietta Hawthorne Cedar Knolls Federation of Teachers

Rick Tivnan Brewster Teachers' Association 

Carene Domato                     Mt. Vernon Federation of Teachers

Melissa Barreto BOCES Teachers’ Association

Jeff Yonkers NYSUT ED 16 Director

Sean Kennedy Yorktown Congress of Teachers

Lisa Jackson Carmel Teachers’ Association

Janet Knight Mamaroneck Teachers’ Association

José Fernandez Peekskill Faculty Association

Amy Geiger Katonah-Lewisboro District Teachers’ Association

Kathleen Fox Edgemont Teachers’ Association

Miriam Longobardi Chappaqua Congress of Teachers

Jennifer Cole Greenburgh Eleven Federation of Teachers

Jim Nolan Mount Pleasant Cottage School Teachers Association

Kara McCormick-Lyons White Plains Teachers’ Association

Alyson Tina Ardsley Congress of Teachers

Ryan Odell Putnam Valley Federation of Teachers

Catherine Armisto United Staff Association (PNW BOCES)

Vincent Kennedy                   Katonah-Lewisboro Support Staff Association

Jennifer Moore Croton Teachers’ Association

Melinda Merkel Rye Neck Teachers’ Association

Jim Agnello Bronxville Teachers’ Association

Kevin Budzynski Elmsford Teachers Association

Clare Delongchamp Eastchester Teachers’ Association

Vanessa Van Deusen  Graham School Federation of Teachers 

Brenda Wright Cornwall Teachers' Association

Virginia Campbell Mount Pleasant Teachers Association

Michael Groarke Bedford Teachers’ Association

Mark Finegan Pelham Teachers' Association

Richard Austin Valhalla Teachers’ Association

Sparrow Tobin Board of Directors NYSUT ED14

Laura Beck Orange-Ulster BOCES Teachers Association 

Ray Hodges Monroe-Woodbury Teachers Association

Theresa Uhelsky Minisink Valley Teachers Association

Chris White                         Middletown Teachers Association

Chris Passudetti Pine Bush Teachers Association

Joe Becker Port Jervis Teachers’ Association

Jon Wedvik Clarkstown Teachers Association 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Dear Mahopac, VOTE YES

On Tuesday, May 7th, the Executive Committee of the Mahopac Teachers’ Association voted to support both the proposed 2019-20 Mahopac Central School District Budget and the proposed Capital Project Bond. I know that the immediate reaction of many will be one that goes something like this, “Of course the teachers support raising taxes. More taxes means higher salaries.” The irony of that reaction is that I, along with many of my colleagues, live in Mahopac and will also be impacted by these votes. As president of the MTA and a community member, I face the challenge of those who believe teachers always want to raise taxes to feed higher salaries while some believe that as a community member, I have worked too closely with the district to keep raises in check.

The reality is that the MTA supports the school budget because it is the lifeblood to the many programs that we get to offer students. It is what allows us to offer STEAM classes, world languages, art, music and so much more. The school budget provides our students and teachers with optimal class sizes, the latest in technology and the most recent reading, writing and math programs. However, perhaps the greatest reality is that most of us were working here a little over a decade ago when the school budget did not pass and the devastating consequences that followed. Personally, I watched my home value drop far more than that year’s proposed tax increase and to this day I am not sure it has fully recovered.

When it comes to the Capital Project Bond, our support is simple. Students’ learning conditions are our working conditions and I don’t have to look very far to find a Facebook post or two (more like 50) about the conditions of some of our facilities in the District. In the past six months alone, I have seen posts with parents complaining that the bathrooms are so disgusting, their children refuse to use them. I have watched roofs leak into our hallways and classrooms. I’ve seen classrooms flood when it rains. The bottom line is that many of these repairs and upgrades will have to be made one way or another. So, a cost neutral bond is a much better option than those dollars coming out of the school budget and impacting the District’s ability to continue to offer all of the great programs our students currently have access to. If you have questions about what “tax neutral” means, take a look at the links below.

Lastly, I hate to do this, but all we have to do is look at our neighbors in Carmel. They proposed a Capital Project Bond which took multiple attempts to pass. In the meantime, parents posted photos and stories about being leaked on while walking the hallways or sitting at game because the roofs needed replacing. If I know anything as nearly a lifelong resident of Mahopac, it is that we want to beat Carmel. Passing this Capital Project Bond on the first vote is just another way for us to do exactly that.

So, please come out to Mahopac High School on May 21st between 6am-9pm and VOTE YES!

Tom McMahon
Mahopac Teachers' Association

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

What's Your Union Story Part III

In our continuing series of MTA members sharing their union stories, here is the latest from Dave, who teaches at the Middle School.

"My union story started long before I was born.  My father was a union man and the benefits he received from that membership paid the bills and ensured good medical coverage for all of us, while also allowing my mom to be a stay at home mother.  I have continued that tradition by serving on the Mahopac Teachers' Association Executive Council for sixteen years.  To say that union is in my blood is no understatement.

I could share examples of standing on the picket line with my father or joining the picket lines of men and women we didn't know.  I could regale you with stories of hard fought victories and vicious battles with management.  I won't.  In each of those stories, unions stood together when they needed to, combating the overwhelming power of corporations and management through solidarity.  The truth of my union story lies at a time when I worked without a union around me, but with union in my soul.

I was still living at home and commuting to college when I took a part-time job at a local lumber yard.  Hard work and a belief in a fair exchange of labor soon rewarded me with a full time position to balance against a full time college class load.  The yard was vast, dangerous and poorly maintained.  Not long after going full time, I was made assistant foreman and made the transition into management.

The men now under my care were twice my age and desperately needed the jobs they held.  They had no union and feared that any complaint or disruption might cost them their livelihoods.  I spoke almost daily with my father, asking for guidance.  I knew what I needed to do, but what I really lacked was the courage to act.  I didn't fear the risk for myself.  I feared that my actions could harm the very men I was trying to protect.  I spoke to management and tried all I could to cajole them into fixing at least some of the danger.  I was ignored.  

I researched OSHA regulations for weeks and formulated my plan.  I drafted a letter that cited the numerous violations that existed.  I included printed photos.  I made clear that if ownership and the Chief Financial Officer did not meet with me immediately on my return, the same letter would find its way to local Assemblymen, Senators and the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration.  I left a copy on the manager's desk and left for a three day vacation.  I gave the other copies of the letter to my father and asked him to mail them if I was terminated.  He knew I was fearful that I might balk at sending them and he would help bolster my resolve.

Upon my return to work, I was summoned to the manager's office and his words still stick with me to this day.  Holding up the letter, he said sternly, "I should fire you for this."  I had anticipated this and had spent the last three days pondering my response.  With all the determination I could muster, I responded, "Be my guest.  Just know that I am a man of my word.  Those letters will go out.  I will bring a civil suit against the company.  So, I would advise you choose your next words very carefully."

The meeting with the ownership and the CFO occurred later that day.  They closed large portions of the yard until safety standards could be improved.  No one lost their job.  No one lost their life.

I had never felt more alone than I had at the time.  As I have grown older, I realize that wasn't true at all though.  I had my father, a union man, standing in solidarity with me.  More importantly, I had millions of union members throughout history standing with me, a non-union shop worker.  The safety regulations that I used to leverage better conditions had come into existence because of the fight that union men and women battled long before me.  Those regulations remained because of the union men and women who stood sentinel over them at the time.  Those regulations will only continue to protect people while union men and women stand together.

I was not alone that day.  I am not alone today.  We are never alone when we are a union."

Thursday, September 20, 2018

What's Your Union Story contiinued...

As mentioned in our previous post, we asked MTA members to share their union stories. As they file in, we will be chronicling them here.

"For the first time in my years at Mahopac I booked a Spring Break vacation.  After the terrible winter we had my trip with my family and friends was being questioned.  Because of my union I was able to not lose my trip and enjoy the week away.  I also thank my fellow union members for stepping up and covering classes."- Nicole from Mahopac Middle School "My life insurance policy that I purchase through NYSUT affords me to get double the amount of coverage and  for half of what I pay  on a private life insurance policy." -Christina from Mahopac Middle School

Thursday, September 13, 2018

What's Your Union Story

Last week, the Mahopac Teachers' Association asked members to share their union stories. The MTA is a proud NYSUT local to have 100% membership, even in a post-Janus world. So, as these stories come in, this blog will be where they are shared.

"I saved a LOT of money this summer due to union/teacher discounts on golf and a GM car."- Amy from Fulmar Road ""Over these last 17 years of teaching here in our district I have many moments where I’ve asked a union building leader for advice or help with certain matters.  One remarkable moment that sticks out in my mind occurred just before our winter holiday break.  I was so very thankful for the MMS building leaders and chief negotiator who worked hard to investigate salary payment/s that were never received during my terms of pregnancy and maternity leaves.  I’ll never forget Dave Gordon handing me an unexpected check of almost seven thousand dollars just before Christmas of 2012 when it all got resolved. I think that I was among several other women in our district who were given these checks.  Without the union’s help I believe that it would have gone unresolved.  Thank you for all you each do to protect our contract and working rights."- Ann Margaret from Mahopac Middle School.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Nothing Has Changed!

As the time for administration of state testing approaches once more, the colossal problems that convinced thousands of parents in New York State to opt their children out of the exams over the past years have remained unaddressed. That’s right: NOTHING HAS CHANGED! The tests are still inappropriately difficult, the funds wasted on their implementation are staggering, the instruction time lost to the students and teachers is still far too long to warrant the current protocol of these tests, and despite federal and state warnings against districts where opt out numbers are elevated, schools will not be punished for high opt out rates, students will not be punished for opting out, and students will not be given a score if they do not take the exam. NOTHING HAS CHANGED!

As in the past, the Mahopac Teachers’ Association continues to support parents’ rights to opt their children out of the NYS grades 3-8 exams. I have made my personal beliefs on this topic well known. Here’s my piece from 2015— Here is another from 2016— And, finally, last year’s as well—

What frustrates me as I look back over each of these pieces is that none of the glaring faults found in state testing have been ameliorated. Yes, the tests are now two days instead of three, but they are now untimed which means students could conceivably spend more time testing than ever before, and the school’s instructional resources must be adapted to facilitate this possibility. The tests are still based on faulty mathematics that use SAT scores as benchmarks for students as young as third-graders, and “passing grades” remain unrealistically unattainable for a large majority of the participants. As educator Bianca Tanis posted in her blog:

In 2013 New York contracted with the College Board, producers of the SAT, to develop a metric that could be used to identify student readiness for college.  This number would set the thresholds for proficiency on all Math and ELA tests down through third grade.  The College Board, based on SED’s guidance, determined a student would need the following scores on their SAT in order to be considered “college ready.”

Critical Reading

A score of a 1630 on the SAT is in the 66th percentile, which means that only 34% of test takers attain this score or higher.  The College Board uses a score of 1550 for its own benchmark, a score in the 57th percentile.

 ( Why is the benchmark for an eight-year-old third grader higher than the benchmark for a sixteen-year-old high school student? Nothing has changed!


 —NYSUT, the state-wide teachers’ union has put out this fact sheet to help both teachers and parents be better informed about the testing issue

—In addition to NYSUT, New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) is also a great resource for opt out information and materials. Here is the fact sheet they put out

—Finally, for those so inclined, here is a sample opt out letter in English and Spanish

Once more, both the federal and state governments have failed to listen to their constituencies to make educational testing more student-friendly, expedient and cost- effective. And, as in any great democracy, the tax-paying public is free to react accordingly.

Tom McMahon
Mahopac Teachers' Association

Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Natural Reason to Vote NO on the Constitutional Convention

In an article “Measuring the Daily Destruction of the World's Rainforests,” Scientific American estimates the Earth loses some 80,000 acres of Amazonian rainforest to human activity every day.   It estimates an equal amount of forest, 80,000 acres, is degraded daily by the same activity as well. That adds up to approximately one million compromised acres of forest a week because of private or commercial activity.*
Thankfully, that kind of exploitation cannot happen to the millions of beautifully preserved acres in New York State.   Have you ever thought about why we have long enjoyed trips to Fahnestock, FDR, Taconic, James Baird or Bear Mountain State Parks?  Or why we can play that dream round of golf at Bethpage State Park, where so many professional golfers have competed in US Opens and other Professional Golf Association events? Or why some of our ocean beaches are still pristine, undeveloped, and open to the public?  Or why the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains are still as breath-taking as ever?  It’s because they’re all constitutionally protected by Article XIV of the New York State Constitution.  That’s the same constitution that is slated to be “revised” if the push by politicians and lobbyists for a constitutional convention is successful.  Our natural resources are particularly vulnerable, and without constitutional protections (which can be weakened or even removed by such a convention), big money investors and for-profit corporations could be granted rights to exploit these public lands, transform them, or even limit or deny access to New York citizens.  Is it worth the risk?
I am already concerned about those who want to stand for election as delegates if a constitutional convention is approved. At the 1967 Con Con, which was the last one held, 80% of the delegates were politicians. I am equally concerned that big money is already influencing these politicians in hope for the chance to modify or even remove some regulatory protections and open our natural resources to corporate or private interests. So even if you aren’t a public employee fearing the loss of your pension, or you aren’t a union member fearing the loss of workers’ rights, or you don’t have children or your children are grown and the guarantee of a free public education isn’t that important to you any more, or even if you are independently wealthy and footing a portion of a tax bill in the hundreds of millions doesn’t bother you, voting NO on Proposal 1 is still important to you; your protected environment is just a convention away from deregulation in favor of capital venture and corporate profit.  
On November 7, flip your ballot over and vote NO to Proposal 1 on November 7th. The fragile resources of our beautiful state deserve it.
Note: Proposal 1 is a question posed to New Yorkers which asks if a Constitutional Convention should be held in 2018.  The estimated cost of such a convention is estimated to be between 100 to 300 million dollars.