More NYC teachers can work remotely, including those with vulnerable family members

UFT President Michael Mulgrew this winter hosted a discussion on the potential impacts of Janus.
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said the agreement was a set of “common-sense policies.” (Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat)

In a reversal of education department policy, New York City educators will now be allowed to work remotely if they are teaching students who are learning from home, according to a new agreement reached Friday between the city and the teachers union.

The deal also gives priority for remote positions to educators living with family members who are at higher risk for coronavirus complications. That had been a major concern among some teachers who worried about transmitting the coronavirus to vulnerable relatives.

The agreement attempts to address a staffing crunch by allowing schools to skirt some of the very rules established in a previous deal with the teachers union. But it also brings a whole new set of complications.

Announced Friday night, the seven pages of requirements outline yet more changes for school leaders and families to navigate at the last minute. Students at every grade level will be allowed to return to school buildings next week, leaving principals with little time to make needed adaptations.

And there could be more changes in store: The agreement refers to yet another round of work guidance that is “forthcoming.” That guidance is expected to outline certain work duties that can be performed online for teachers who have in-person responsibilities.

Also included in the agreement: parent-teacher conferences will be conducted online, unless an in-person meeting is requested.

All teachers — except the roughly 23% percent of those with medical accommodations — have been reporting to their school buildings since Sept. 8. On Monday, most students started the first full week of instruction from home, and at least 46% of students have so far opted to learn from home full-time.

Many families whose children signed up for remote learning were surprised to see teachers, often in masks, delivering remote instruction from classrooms.

Teachers argued it made little sense to report to buildings to teach students learning online. “These common-sense policies will help keep our school communities safe while enabling you to do your work,” teachers union president Michael Mulgrew wrote to members on Friday.

The education department will extend the work-from-home preference, which kicks in Oct. 5, “first to those who reside with someone on the CDC medical accommodation list,” said Danielle Filson, a spokesperson for the education department, in a statement after this story was published. “This will help to reduce the number of occupants in school buildings, minimize congestion on public transportation, and give principals the ability to make decisions that best fit their school communities.”

Principals have some leeway and can require up to 20% of teachers with remote assignments to come into school buildings “with reasonable advance notice.” The agreement doesn’t say how much notice is enough. 

Schools are also now allowed to adopt schedules and teacher assignments that don’t fit neatly into the union’s previous agreement. That deal was nearly impossible for many schools to follow

Some schools, for instance, are planning to have students learn on virtual platforms even when they’re in school buildings or are asking educators to teach a mix of in-person and remote students during different periods of the day. The original agreement between the city and union discouraged this, demanding separate teachers for those who are physically in school and those who are learning from home. Now, principals could have more flexibility.

But the process for getting work-arounds approved could prove time-consuming if there is disagreement between the principal and teachers. The steps for doing so are laid out in a 12-page memo, and requires at least 55% of union members to vote in favor. If union members and administrators cannot come to an agreement, they can ask their superintendent and the school’s district union representative to help find a resolution.

The deal does not allow for much flexibility around one hot button issue: live-streaming classes. It bars principals from requiring teachers to broadcast their classes to a mix of students who are in person and remote, something Mulgrew and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have insisted would lead to subpar teaching. But teachers can choose to livestream classes.

While some of the changes may be well-received, the agreement adds another hurdle if schools have to reassign teachers after they’ve already met their students. The school year started Sept. 16 and students in all grades will be allowed to attend in-person classes by Oct. 1. Principals may be forced to scramble once again to re-work their schedules to accommodate new waves of teachers who are eligible to work from home. 

Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union that represents principals, was furious that the education department did not brief school leaders on the agreement, with many learning details from teachers at their schools Friday evening. 

“To do this at the 11th hour is unacceptable,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re getting all too used to that.”

He added that principals urgently need guidance about how decisions will be made regarding expanded accommodations to work from home due to family members’ medical issues. “If they can’t make those accommodations and someone has a real need, the principal is in a real difficult spot,” Cannizzaro said. He noted that it is still unclear whether there will be enough teachers on hand for in-person classes next week.

Such accommodations will only be considered at schools that need to fill more full-remote teaching positions, according to the agreement.

School kicked off more than a week ago, and the latest move follows weeks of scheduling conundrums, a staffing shortage, and two delays for reopening buildings in the nation’s largest school district. 

One principal in Queens, who asked that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the late agreement makes his job “1,000 times harder.” He said he was relying on teachers working with remote students to help with student arrival and dismissal, which now involves temperature checks and health screenings.

Teachers with remote students also made up half of his “building response team,” a group of staffers coordinating the school’s virus response protocols, such as ensuring safe morning entry. With fewer educators on campus, he’s concerned it will take longer for students to make their way inside, cutting into their instructional time.

By 7:30 p.m. Friday night, three teachers had emailed him asking to work from home, he said. 

“I am ready to quit,” he said. 

Marilyn Ramirez, a chapter leader and bilingual special education teacher at High School for Media Communications in Washington Heights, said Friday her colleagues’ group chat was “going off” with happy texts about the new agreement — especially the ability to work from home if students are also at home. Overall, she thought the agreement was an indication that city officials were “listening now.”

“I just wish that we — we, meaning the DOE — would have thought about this from the beginning, like maybe gotten teachers and principals involved in the planning, and then that way all of these concerns could have been addressed a couple of months ago,” Ramirez said.

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