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Some teachers forced to continue in-person education; left weighing loss of wages or personal safety

It’s safe to say that right now, it’s a difficult time to be a teacher. It’s hard work year-round, but in particular, teachers are tasked with doing something they’ve never done before. To make matters worse, they’re doing it under circumstances that the system hasn’t really ever experienced in the past.

In mid-March, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced full-closure of schools across New York until early-April. Over the weekend, he announced an extension of that closure, which now runs through the middle of the month.

However, Special Act Schools are being overlooked as students reside on campus, according to representatives.  Teachers and teaching assistants are being asked to go into the residential units to educate and supervise youth during the school day.

George Junior Republic Union Free School District is one of those Special Act Schools in New York. It’s located in Tompkins County, currently serving 160 students on campus. These students have cognitive and emotional disabilities and have been sent to the campus via either the court system or their home school districts to provide residential counseling services and education.

Students live in “cottages” and report to the school building during normal operations, but with the mandated school closures, teachers and teaching assistants are being told that they must either report to the cottages or use their sick days.

The most vulnerable of teachers and assistants are those who don’t have many sick days available due to underlying health issues. No exceptions are being made for these individuals.

Some employees are burdened with the choice of having to report and potentially expose themselves to Covid-19, or stay home without pay.

Many teaching staff members are raising concerns over mismanagement, failure to send kids home who have viable home resources, failure to limit the number of people coming into contact with each other, failure to enforce social distancing or limit gatherings to 10 people or less, failure to quickly separate sick people from the general populace, or quarantine the impacted, the unavailability of soap, disinfectant wipes, and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) such as masks or gloves in the cottages. These concerns appear to frequently fall on deaf ears. The NYSUT teacher’s union is also trying to help but is being bogged down with the legal system and is unable to provide immediate help.

While some preventative measures have recently been adopted, such as temperature checks for teachers and staff upon reporting to campus, there is some question as to whether the equipment is properly calibrated. “I checked my temperature before reporting to work, and it was 100.3. When they scanned me at the checkpoint, they said I was clear to proceed.  I asked them what my temperature was, and they said I was good.  I again asked what the thermometer read, and they said 97.5,” said Susan Peters, Teaching Assistant at George Junior. “I immediately reported to the campus clinic in hopes of having my temperature re-checked, but no one was there, so I went to the school and tried to talk to administration.  They essentially dismissed my concerns about proper calibration of equipment, so I went home,” said Peters.

The first positive case of Covid-19 was confirmed on campus last Friday, March 27th. Students, Teachers and Assistants who were potentially exposed to the sick individual are not being quarantined, and staff is being told by the on campus medical clinic to continue reporting to work even if they know they’ve been exposed to someone who has tested positive.  “We are not saying that we are refusing to work,” said Peters. “We care deeply about the children we serve and we want to provide them with continuity of education during these uncharted times. We just want to do it safely and remotely like all of the other NY State teachers are doing. We are not trained child care workers, first responders, or health care workers- we are New York State Public School Teachers and Teaching Assistants. We are being told that we must report despite our objections and concerns. This feels like gross negligence and malfeasance on the part of the Agency and School Administration, and I fear that if nothing is done, we will be responsible for creating an epicenter for Covid-19 that will cost lives, and overwhelm the small health care system in our area. I am speaking out because we need help, and I am worried for my colleagues’ and our students’ health. I implore Governor Cuomo to consider our unique and complex situation and help Special Act schools such as ours to stay financially afloat safely during this global pandemic, because children’s and New York State public school teaching staff’s lives are on the line,” she added.