KENMORE, NY (WKBW) — “We would expect nothing less in our schools for our students and our staff,” remarked Peter Stulhmiller, president, Kenmore Teachers Association.
As school districts across New York State work to meet the July 31 deadline to submit their reopening plans, the state’s top teachers union is demanding schools follow the state’s guidelines. Those guidelines have been issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York State Department of Health (DOH).
Local union leaders are working to make sure students get return safely back to school.
“But there's a reality that if we don't do it correctly — lives could be loss,” stated Joe Cantafio, president, West Seneca Teachers Association.
New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) issued a stern warning to school districts statewide saying the state guidelines must be followed to ensure a safe return for students, teachers and staff.
Cantafio, also a member of NYSUT’s board of directors, says as districts work quickly to create their reopen plans, word was surfacing that some were ignoring some of the safety guidelines of six feet of distancing and mandatory wearing face masks. “So I think their motives might be in a good place, but trying to find a way to make it happen that's not sound for health, science and the data is very concerning,” Cantafio explained.
In the Kenmore Tonawanda School District teachers union president Stuhlmiller says he believes some districts were listening to some area doctors that were saying students could be three feet apart wearing masks.
“There were some districts locally that started jumping on that because it was easier to administer a re-entry plan if they only had to keep people away three feet as opposed six feet away,” Stuhlmiller said. But that would be against state guidelines issued by the governor, state health department New York State Education Department (NYSED). “We would expect nothing less in our schools for our students and our staff,” noted Stuhlmiller.
NYSUT says schools must have social distancing in place on school grounds and in school buildings with no exceptions.
NYSUT president, Andy Pallotta, was not available Monday to comment on the warning for districts. We were told he was in and out of back to back meetings on school reopening plans.
But in a written news released Pallotta issued the following remark.
“With the clock ticking for districts to develop and submit reopening plans, there is no time for ambiguity,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said. “We’ll say it again: Health and safety, as well as equity, are absolutely essential in planning for the fall. The Department of Health issued clear guidelines regarding social distancing and masks. There’s no reason districts should be guessing at what the safest option for students, staff and the entire school community is.”
Over the weekend, Pallotta wrote a Tweet that referred to the need to follow the DOH social distancing guidelines and made a Western New York reference.
“Reported to me that a WNY Sup’t is not planning on following DOH Guidelines on social distancing — this is wrong,” tweeted Pallotta.
7 Eyewitness News asked NYSUT if they could say who the union leader was referring to, but they could not reveal the name.
Here is what the leader of the national teachers union stated in the NYSUT news release on demanding districts abide by the state’s guidance.
“Frankly I was shocked when I saw an interpretation of the minimum guidance on safely reopening schools that suggested that a district could choose masks or physical distancing. Working with fellow members of the governor’s Reimagine Education Advisory Council, we developed strong guidelines for how to keep our schools safe, if districts moved forward with some form of in-person instruction. And that guidance was spelled out in Governor Cuomo’s reopening schools safely plan. It’s not an either/or; physical distancing or physical barriers are absolutely necessary in schools, as are masks. Masks are strongly recommended at all times, and absolutely are required if it is impossible to physically distance, as in hall passing,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said. “Parents need to feel confident that if they send their children back to school it is safe, just as educators need to feel equally as confident that it will be safe for them. We can’t have confusion at this stage. Districts need to get this right.”
Both NYSUT and the AFT state the guidelines “must be met and are unequivocally necessary”.
According to the DOH guidance:
- Districts must ensure there is proper social distancing on school grounds and in school facilities. “Specifically, appropriate social distancing means six feet of space in all directions between individuals or use of appropriate physical barriers between individuals that do not adversely affect air flow, heating, cooling, or ventilation, or otherwise present a health or safety risk.”
- Even with face coverings in use, occupancy of spaces, such as classrooms and other small spaces, “should not exceed 50% of the maximum capacity of the space, unless it is designed for use by a single occupant.”
- Face coverings must be worn “any time or place that individuals cannot maintain appropriate social distancing.” Further, face coverings are “strongly recommended at all times, except for meals and instruction with appropriate social distancing. However, Responsible Parties can require face coverings at all times, even during instruction; and it is strongly recommended in areas with higher rates of COVID-19 community infection.”
- Other health and safety measures must also be in place.
“We must get this right,” Pallotta said. “We will not jeopardize the health and safety of students, educators and families by agreeing it’s safe to go back without these requirements in place.”
Both union leaders said they strong believe teachers want to come back, but it must be safe.
“They want to come back, but they need to come back safely. There’s no sense in reversing the successes we’ve had statewide in lowering the infection rates,” Stuhlmiller remarked.
“Our goal is to get kids back into schools. We know how important it is,” Cantafio stated. “If we just open schools up without using the guidelines of social distancing and guidelines, the state might just end up closing us down in a few weeks anyways. Not following those guidelines — and then having to close down because we’ve become a super spreader.”