COVID-19 and Rochester Labor
NYSUT Regional Office
Interview with Carrie Andrews (New York State United Teachers Regional Director), 7 August 2020; supplemented with follow-up interview 5 March 2021
The striking impact of COVID-19 on our education workers is the direct, immediate effect of actions by New York State government, specifically decisions to close, partially close or reopen schools.
Rochester schools closed on March 16, 2020, and remained closed through the Summer. Initial plans for the Fall called for the schools to remain closed. Subsequent decisions called for their partial reopening — including "hybrid" schedules (with some students attending Monday and Tuesday while others attended Thursday and Friday, and schools were cleaned on Wednesday) — or full reopening.
The impact of school closure varied by job and contract. Regional NYSUT represents thirty thousand members in 160 bargaining units including teachers, paraprofessionals, secretaries, bus drivers and custodians. When schools were closed, NYSUT's main role was advocacy (guidance for State officials and sharing information across NYSUT regions). Presidents of local unions played key roles, especially in relation to health and safety issues and remote teaching including improving teaching skills for distance learning, dealing with technology access issues including privacy, and Special Education. Delivering all meetings and trainings online was challenging but improved member participation.
The reopening of schools during the Fall of 2020 and Winter of 2021 was in accordance with NYS guidelines, but decisions were made on a district by district basis, taking into account state designations of orange and yellow zones based on the number of COVID-19 cases among the twenty percent of students and staff tested. Grades K—6 students returned to hybrid schedules as they remain in cohorts throughout their day, while secondary instruction remained virtual to avoid the contamination likely to occur as students move from one class to another. Most Rochester-area districts kept hourly non-teaching staff on payroll; the Rochester City School District's layoff of paraprofessionals (members of Rochester Association of Paraprofessionals) and non-teaching staff (see BENTE below) was an exception.
As schools reopened districts provided masks to teachers and, as educators were classified 1-B, initiated their vaccinations: by March, 2021, some sixty percent of teachers had received their first shot and trial vaccination of students had begun. Still, there have been issues over quarantining students and teachers and some Regents Exams will not be administered this year. It's expected that in-person instruction will be commonplace in the fall of 2021.
Impacts of COVID-19 on NYSUT operations include regular collaboration with the Governor's office; working on health insurance and other contract issues such as arranging for members to take time off; and working on increasing numbers of retirement requests and the training of new teachers. The local NYSUT building is typically bustling with activity throughout its offices and meeting rooms; its closure contributed to the region's plethora of zoom meetings, but NYSUT staff continued with their usual support activities.