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Wednesday, September 9, 2020

In NYC, No One Trusts Anyone - Parents, Teachers, and Staff Stay Away From Their Schools

NYC Chancellor Richard Carranza, Mayor Bill de Blasio,
UFT President Michael Mulgrew

In New York City distrust reigns. No one believes anyone anymore.

The Mayor, Bill de Blasio, says his wife should get $millions of dollars for her organization ThriveNYC which is supposedly established to keep people happy and sane. Evidently this was, and is, untrue, at least according to multiple stories on the internet. ...Which is what this entire post is about. 

Who do you believe?

Parents do not believe the Department of Education; educators at all levels do not believe their unions (UFT and CSA).

But the one thing everyone is in agreement with is that every person must look out for their own safety and that of their loved ones, 'cause no one else can be trusted to do it for you.

 Betsy Combier
Editor, ADVOCATZ Blog

Editor, Inside 3020-a Teacher Trials

Teachers at Grace Dodge Educational Campus in the Bronx rallied on Tuesday to call attention to safety concerns about reopening school buildings. Teachers are worried ventilation is not adequate in the cafeteria, where they say the windows don’t open and the air conditioners don’t work.
 Courtesy photo/Cristobal Vivar

NYC ventilation reports say most classrooms are safe. Educators aren’t convinced.

New York City’s education department on Tuesday released room-level inspection reports for the ventilation systems at every single public school and found most classrooms are safe to reopen, but most school bathrooms are not.

Mayor Bill de Blasio promised the records would help school communities understand all the precautions put into place for Sept. 21, when students are slated to return to in-person learning for the first time since the pandemic forced the country’s largest school system to close its doors last spring.

But many educators say the reports do not match what they see on the ground and want more information about how city leaders are making decisions about which spaces are safe.

The reports released Tuesday show that 96% percent of classrooms had functioning ventilation systems, leaving another 2,882 in need of repairs.

Many school bathrooms will need attention, though, with only 43% percent deemed usable, and repairs needed in 13,248 others, according to the city.

Overall, officials say that 81% of school spaces are up to par. Those that can’t be fixed before the school year starts will not be used. The city already took off-line 10 buildings, housing 21 schools, less than a day before teachers were expected to report back there to begin their preparations for the new year.

“The ventilation issue was: Was there proper air circulation, in combination with all the other health and safety measures? And what this inspection regimen was trying to determine is which classrooms had that,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “I don’t think it’s a lot more complex than that.”

Since school buildings were shuttered in March, a growing body of evidence has shown that the coronavirus can linger in the air. That has made proper ventilation a key line of defense, in addition to mask-wearing and social distancing. Experts say that classrooms need to have fresh air coming in, and stale air being pulled out — which can usually be accomplished with fans, powerful air filters, open windows, and, in spaces where all that is not enough, portable air purifiers.

City leaders have offered little explanation for how they are determining that ventilation is up to par and whether buildings are safe to reopen. The reports released Tuesday include a breakdown of whether each space in a building has at least one functioning window, and whether the mechanical components of the ventilation system are working in that room. There is no determination included in the reports of whether a particular classroom is usable.

That information is a good starting point, said William P. Bahnfleth, a professor and the chair of the Epidemic Task Force at The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, which has issued ventilation guidance for schools that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has adopted. He wishes the reports also showed the amount of outdoor air circulating in each space has been measured, and compared against the size of the room and the number of teachers and students expected to be inside.

“They don’t go to the extent of verifying that the outdoor air supply and filtration are what you would hope they would be,” Bahnfleth said of the reports. “You would hope that a building that is going to be occupied would be checked more thoroughly.”

Lorraine Grillo, the head of the School Construction Authority, or SCA, suggested the city is working with unions to conduct “engineering-type” inspections along the lines that Bahnfleth recommends. But she did not provide specifics.

Grillo said those returning to school “can feel very confident that the union, as well as SCA and school facilities, have been working very hard to make every classroom safe.”

Not everyone is convinced.

When Principal Rashid Davis saw the education department’s list of schools with ventilation issues so serious that they cannot immediately open, he was surprised that his school, P-Tech, the Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn, was not on it.

He thought about P-Techs ongoing effort to overhaul the century-old school’s ventilation system. He recalled the construction noise and dust that would float inside classrooms when the building’s windows are open, and the scaffolding that blocks fresh air from coming in.

“We should be on this list,” Davis emailed his school community late Monday and attached P-Tech’s own ventilation inspection report. It spans three pages and shows not a single space has a working supply or exhaust fan to promote air circulation.

Davis raised the alarm in an email to senior city officials, and said a raft of union and education department leaders came to his building Tuesday morning to hear his concerns. They promised the building’s fans would work by the time students arrive. He’s worried not only about classrooms, but also hallways and bathrooms, and wants to know what criteria are being used to keep the building open while shuttering others.

“We don’t know that,” he said. “And without knowing that, it’s not as transparent as they are saying.”

Without such details, some educators said they are taking the matter into their own hands. Melissa Williams, for one, ordered a simple wind speed meter. Since Williams, an occupational therapist in Washington Heights, has an accommodation that allows her to work from home this school year, she handed off the $30-device to a colleague who planned to use it to check the airflow in her own classroom.

“I do not feel safe with my coworkers going into my workplace,” Williams said.

At the Grace Dodge Campus in the Bronx, which houses three schools, teachers were told they could use the cafeteria for their own lunch breaks. That’s worrisome for Israel Soto, a union representative and social studies teacher at the campus, who said the space has neither functioning air conditioning nor windows that open.

Soto and his colleagues at Crotona International High School rallied outside the building on Tuesday morning to highlight their safety concerns and demand that the school year begin with remote instruction only.

“There’s no ventilation,” Soto said of the lunchroom, adding that the campus has faced maintenance issues for years. “We’ve been saying it, that’s the sad part. It’s not that it has not been known.”

What happened?
JD2718, SEPTEMBER 5, 2020 PM30 1:40 PM
August 19 and August 20 the United Federation of Teachers leadership began work towards a school reopening job action. NYC and the NYC Department of Education had been mostly uncooperative all summer. Disagreements about safety were not close to being resolved. The Department wanted minimal testing requirements, the union wanted stringent testing requirements.

There had been cooperation over the summer – but the results were generally bad for teachers and schools: Blended learning with impossible constraints1800 plans written by 1800 principals (with training in pedagogy, not in safety planning), Instructional lunch, and just now more roles than teachers.

So August 19 and 20 the UFT holds a press conference, announces safety non-negotiables, and begins organizing meetings. First chapter leaders were invited to borough-wide meetings. Then members were invited to meetings in smaller groups.

My union is run top-down. Central gives instructions to the boroughs, and often directly to District Reps. District Reps give directions to Chapter Leaders – some of whom follow them – and that’s all that’s really expected. In a few chapters there is actual discussion, but in many, the CL doesn’t even communicate information from the Central, and in most the CL just communicates from Central. There is not much two-way flow of information. The idea of Officers and Reps “serving” members is paternalistic, at best. (with very notable exceptions – if you almost jumped out of your chair when you read those words – you are probably in that minority. And we are incredibly thankful to the handful of you)

So Chapter Leaders, then members got invited to meetings. And the stakes, possible job action, questions about personal safety and safety of our students, were high. Very high. Higher than at any other union meeting most of us have been to. Ever. And the reaction was not what the leaders expected. In the UFT, instructions are given, chapter leaders follow them, or ignore them. But here there were questions. Lots of questions.

  • Do we have to strike? (Quite a bit of nervousness)
  • Why aren’t we demanding full remote (Quite a few challenges to Central’s “We want to go in, but safely” strategy)
  • What’s the timeline? (Central had not prepared a timeline. These were designed a bit like pep rallies)
  • When’s the vote? There was no answer.
  • What steps should chapter leaders take? The answers were absent or nebulous, came from a variety of sources, but not central. I was asked to organize a chapter meeting, but not yet. And there was no follow-up to say “now” (passive voice there, intentionally so) (Central had not prepared the next steps. These were designed a bit like pep rallies)

The process gets repeated in the member meetings, but attendance is gooooood… but not excellent. And members might ask fewer difficult questions, but there is a clear “enthusiasm gap” (larger when considering the significant numbers who did not come).

What happened? 

That’s easy. You should not run a union top-down. You cannot organize a strike top-down.

By August 27 and 28 it was clear to many that this was not going right. Instead of vagueness about a schedule for voting, the discussion was filtering to the members that it would be Exec Board 8/31 and Delegate Assembly 9/1, and there was no time for a membership vote. After the DA, the move would be to court for an injunction against an unsafe opening.

I was worried about what was going on. I wrote to Mulgrew and the officers, urging them NOT to skip a membership vote:

I understand that there is consideration of strike authorization votes at the Executive Board and the Delegate Assembly. 
I also understand that there may not be a membership vote. I hope I am mistaken.  That would be a serious error.
There is the issue of democracy. but I think that is relatively minor.
But the issues of member engagement loom large. Organizing a vote increases member engagement, and member buy-in. It also provides real-time feedback from the field. Are chapter leaders organizing? Is there resistance? What are the issues?
The activity around organizing a vote makes a strike more effective.
For members who are already on board, it makes a smaller difference; the vote increases enthusiasm.  But for members on the fence, skipping the vote sends the message that the leaders don’t trust the members, or don’t care what they think. It will harden the pockets of resistance.
I don’t know if support in the field is at 95%, 85%, 75%, 65% or 55%… but even at 85% we need to win more people over.
A membership vote makes us – and any potential job action – stronger.
I hope that I was indeed mistaken – that a membership vote is planned. But if that is not the case, I would thank you to consider the matter carefully,

And then on Monday August 31 the vote at the Executive Board was for both strike authorization, but also for 24 hours more to negotiate. And Tuesday morning de Blasio and Mulgrew and Carranza announced a deal.

Why the deal?

From the mayor’s side, there really are serious problems with the plans. September 10 (which had been scheduled to be the first day with kids) was looking like a disaster. He bought time, and he bought labor “peace” without much cost.

From the UFT leadership’s standpoint, the strike threat was not nearly as effective as they had presumed it would be, and they did not have confidence they could pull off a job action. Under those circumstances, a deal might not have been such a bad move.

An alternate explanation comes from Mike Schirtzer, one of three non-Unity Caucus members on the Executive Board, and the only one to vote against the deal:

It was the very threat of a job action and litigation by our union that forced this mayor to come to the negotiating table to address the issue of keeping our children and educators safe. Before that point he wouldn’t budge.

I agree with most of Mike’s reasoning and appreciate his willingness to speak openly about it. But I don’t agree with his assessment that the threat was effective (and I dismiss the UFT leadership’s similar assessment as self-serving)

What would have happened if the UFT had moved forward towards a job action? 

Given the very tight tolerances for scheduling (unworkable, actually) a school might not be able to function, even if everyone shows up. But 30% staying out (beyond those with accommodations) might have shut a school. And the real number would have been higher. But how much higher? Some schools, maybe not all, but probably most, would have been unable to function. A strike, even with the preparations looking half-assed, would probably have shut the system.

A strike might have shut the system, would probably have shut the system, but without any guarantee. And a few entire schools might have kept working – a few at first. With time a weak strike (and there would have been time) could have easily become weaker.

But even if a strike had been effective in shutting the system, a weak strike would have done incalculable damage to the union in the long run. It would have divided us. It would have made members bitter at members and further diminished trust in the leadership. A short term win was possible. But a long term, expensive loss was in the cards.

Couldn’t there have been a better threat?

Yes. But that would have required a different approach.

  • Open discussion. Organizing for a job action requires that members talk to each other. Members need to convince themselves and convince each other. Most of our chapters do not engage in open discussion of union issues. That should change. But that’s hard. The UFT has developed a culture where asking hard questions or disagreeing is treated as disloyal. It will take a conscious effort to end that. I mean, in fact, it is disloyal to the membership when one of us knows there is a potential problem, but says nothing. But how do we get to the place where showing loyalty to the union and the membership comes before showing loyalty to an officer?
  • Time. Any kind of organizing takes time, but especially when we need to get 100% or close to 100% on board. Starting August 19? Come on. And it is not just now. Union decisions have to allow members time to figure things out. To talk. To schedule. But three weeks to go from zero to strike was not adequate.
  • Sharing information. Real discussions require real information. And holding information back from the membership should be considered incompatible with leadership. It’s not just now. This organization speaks to the Mayor, to the Chancellor, to the Press before it speaks to members. That’s bad. At the Chapter Leader meetings two weeks ago CLs asked “what’s next?” and DRs said they didn’t know – because UFT Central was not sharing information. At the DA Peter Lamphere asked where we could read the agreement. You know what? The UFT leadership has asked members and delegates to vote on agreements in the past when we did not have them to read. (Here’s an example) That’s wrong.
  • Knowledge of strike organization. No one in the leadership of the UFT has led a teacher strike. Almost none of the school-based membership have been involved in a strike. We went into this without experience. But other AFT locals have had those experiences. All layers of our leadership, in better days in the future, should learn from locals with strike experience. For officers and reps arranging trips and seminars should not be too hard. Workshops in NYC for chapter leaders and chapter activists would be useful. And they, in turn, could bring the knowledge back to chapters.
  • Goals. This gets really specific. But the UFT leadership’s goals were wrong. Early on, maybe late May or mid-June, they decided that NYC schools could open in September. I have written about the fixation on blended learning, and on compromising all sorts of stuff to make it happen. The UFT leadership, before this talk of job action, had already given up on the one clear issue that had a chance of uniting the membership: keeping our schools remote. Look, members agreed with Mulgrew that the “schools should be safe” and that we needed “better testing” – but those were not enough.

So they cut a deal. We cut a deal.

What’s in the Deal?

Random testing, of a pretty big chunk of staff and students (UFT had wanted 100% before school began)

Delayed opening, teachers 9/8, remote for sign-in purposed 9/16, full instruction 9/21

(Vagueness warning) – some ability for a chapter to have safety issues addressed before going into a school

Is this a sellout?

This deal? No. Each one of those points is something we should want. Better testing. More time to prepare for the year. And some ability for chapters to walk out.

We can be disappointed that it is not nearly enough. It is not.

But we also know that we averted a risky strike that could have weakened us in the long run.

Of course, there is more. We still have plans that won’t work. We have unnecessarily risky maskless instructional lunch. We have 1800 plans devised by 1800 principals, some of whom I wouldn’t trust to tie their own shoes.

We also have to address the individual school safety issues. This has been dumped onto individual chapters – potentially dividing the strength of the union. We need to see how aggressively UFT Central and the Borough Offices pursue violations, and how actively they encourage and support chapters standing up.

Are we done?

This is not the last deal for this year. If schools open September 21 there will be huge problems and issues all over the City. But we have a few more days. We want to teach. We want the teaching to work, as best as it can under these circumstances. And we want to keep all of us, ourselves, our families, our schools, our colleagues and our students, safe. We will ultimately need to be remote.