This is Not What We Meant by a Remote Option…

We need a remote option. The new deal worked out by the UFT and DOE isn’t one.

Why we need a Remote Option

As COVID-19 spirals out of control in our schools, infecting students, teachers, and their families, our Mayor and Chancellor refuse to temporarily make schooling remote. If we’re going to have schools open amidst record high positivity rates, the least we can do is give the option for students to work remotely. This way:

  1. Students with personal or familial health concerns could learn from the comfort of their own homes without fear of contracting COVID-19 and/or spreading the illness to their loved ones.  
  2. Students who want to learn in-person would have access to classrooms that aren’t overcrowded during a pandemic. With a remote option, it would be possible in many schools to maintain 6+ feet of social distancing rather than the current 3- feet of social distancing. 
  3. In-person teachers would also have reduced exposure to COVID-19, and with many classes meeting remotely, we could potentially renegotiate telecommuting options for teachers with personal or familial health concerns. 

The New Agreement is Not a Remote Option

However, the announced plans to support students to work remotely– a ‘livestreaming option’ that hasn’t even been negotiated with the UFT, and another option for non-quaranting students to get access to asynchronous work and remote office hours–fall far from constituting a ‘remote option.’ Let’s take a look at each:

Livestreaming doesn’t work. There’s a reason that last year classes were either remote or in-person. Teaching two different types of classes at once means the teacher inevitably becomes exhausted and teaches both classes less effectively. As many of us are already having APPR weaponized against us in the context of a pandemic, now is not the time to teach less effectively to make up for the DOE’s failure to provide a real remote option. We especially shouldn’t livestream, because it’s not a good solution for the students. Students who join in-person classes from a Zoom account at home often find it to be an alienating experience. In-person assignments don’t always translate well remotely, and teachers are generally too busy managing their in-person students to devote much attention to students at home. Remote students deserve actual remote classes tailored to their needs, not badly broadcasted in-person classes.

The Updated Remote Agreement on the other hand is a joke of an attempt at a remote option. Teachers already have a mandated responsibility to conduct remote office hours for students who are quarantining (which sets a terrible precedent of forced overtime for teachers who have many conflicting after-school responsibilities, and is essentially an extension of the work-day that should have been subject to a vote, but I digress). What the new agreement does is allow teachers the option of also providing said office hours (and asynchronous work) to students who aren’t on the quarantine list. However, there’s no mandate here, and both principals and teachers have to agree to it. Some principals might not necessarily have the funding to implement the plan, whereas other principals might allow it but find that teachers are unable to devote their time to the extra work. Therefore, depending on a student’s principal and teacher(s), they might not get anything under this agreement. And even if they do get the office hours and asynchronous work, that’s a far cry from a full week of remote instruction. 

We need to implement a real remote option now. Students at home deserve quality remote instruction, and teachers can only provide that if they’re given the right tools/space to do so. That doesn’t look like livestreaming, and it doesn’t look like optional and occasional office hours. It looks like dedicated remote classes. Because Unity Caucus and the DOE didn’t ‘do the work’ to negotiate a remote option at the beginning of the year, time is not on our side. Reprogramming students to make this happen would be an astronomical task, and with the new semester approaching at the end of this month, we need to act fast. But, the time is now to implement a true remote option. We owe it to our students, teachers, and communities.

Why New Action is running with United for Change, not Unity

United for Change is the rational progressive choice in the next UFT election. New Action’s participation with this unprecedented alliance of caucuses should signal just that.

New Action is the oldest existing opposition caucus in the United Federation for Teachers (UFT). We have a long history of both opposing and supporting UFT leadership, and have often been seen as a more ‘moderate’ progressive opposition caucus for this reason (an attribution we don’t necessarily agree with, but understand). Indeed, we work with Unity when we feel it’s the right thing to do. In 2002, we formed a 14-year long bipartisan alliance with Unity to help withstand Bloomberg’s attacks on our teachers and schools. That alliance lasted until 2016, and led to myriad accomplishments such as an organizing committee that helped Chapter Leaders and staff in over 230 schools, the establishment of the Principals in Need of Improvement Program (PINI) to expose and help get rid of abusive administrators, and the establishment of a UFT Social and Economic Justice Committee. 

While we stand by our original (2002) decision to ally ourselves with Unity, by 2016 we realized it was no longer the right thing to do. Unity reneged on many of its promises, canceled our shared programs, allowed our union to weaken, and swung way too far to the right on too many issues.  

Under the current leadership, our union is far weaker than it has to be. Without opposition voices to help guide them, UFT leadership has swung more to the right than ever.  Never before has Unity’s abject failure been more apparent. Never before has the need for new leadership been greater. This year, the various opposition caucuses: New Action, MORE, Solidarity, ICE, and Retiree Advocate have decided to run against Unity, as the United for Change Coalition. While we have our differences and span far across the political spectrum, we have agreed to a shared platform. This represents an alliance like no other in UFT history.

So if you’re union strong and want a better union, vote United for Change in this next election cycle. It’s the only progressive choice.

Some thoughts on the Spring Break Decision

On January 5th, the arbitrator reached a decision on our compensation for spring break time. For each of the seven days we worked, we will receive a ‘vacation day.’ Subject to approval from school administration, and being given ‘expedited arbitration’ if we are denied a request, we can theoretically use these vacation days to take vacation during the school year. If we don’t use all 7 days, we can get the full value of the days upon termination of employment (with CAR days it’s only half the value). Some other notes:

  • We’ll apparently get these days officially credited to us on Feb. 1, 2022. 
  • Those of us who used CAR days during break for whatever reason may only get 3-6 vacation days (because 4 of our 7 vacation days are being converted from what we got added to our CAR). 
  • Anyone who retired or otherwise left the DOE will get compensated with the unused vacation time. 

This is a much better decision than it could have been. There was a time when it looked like we’d only be getting 4 CAR days after all and the best we could hope for is maybe 7 CAR days. A maximum of 7 vacation days with 1:1 exchange value is much better than that. However, I would like to raise a few concerns.

  1. We waited almost two years on a decision for working during a time we never should have had to work. Michael Mulgrew’s emails to us at that time are reproduced here. Note that we did not fight Cuomo on this. In fact, Mulgrew visibly backed Cuomo up on making us work Spring Break, noting  “I know it’s not fair, but it’s not fair for a lot of people right now.” Our union leadership should have fought this then–not publicly accepted it and waited for an arbitrator to hopefully side with us on compensation later.
  2. These vacation days are likely going to be harder to use than we think. For one thing, right now it would be impossible for an administrator to approve them. Our staffing crisis, caused by schoolborne COVID-infections at a time when it’s unsafe for us to be working in person, is making many of us work coverages on a day to day basis. It would be impossible for a principal to allow us to take a vacation right now, and we frankly don’t know if/when it ever will be possible. But assuming things get better, we can expect red tape from some principals. Chapter leaders will have to work to secure vacation rights in many schools, adding to their already too-long list of battles to choose whether or not to fight.
  3. A 1:1 exchange feels fair, but shouldn’t we have gotten more than that? When most workers are forced to work on a holiday, they get time and a half or more. Why are we only getting time?
  4. While I think vacation days can potentially be a very good thing, their addition to our timekeeping repertoire could spell disaster in upcoming contract negotiations. Remember, Adams wants to extend the school year. Unity Caucus extended our school day before for very minor raises. Flexible vacation days that have to be approved by principals (with the right to expedited arbitration if they deny) could very well become a model that the DOE brings to us in exchange for cutting or repurposing our summer break time. And that’s something very dangerous that at least needs to be on our radar. 

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