A trio of unions representing teachers, administrators and civil servants are urging White Plains Schools Superintendent Dr. Joseph Ricca and the Board of Education to switch the district from hybrid to all remote instruction next week, fearful of the impact Thanksgiving will have on already rising COVID-19 case numbers.
Although union officials believe a two-week pause would be most medically prudent, given the nature of the virus, the proposal of a weeklong switch might be more palatable to stakeholders eager to maintain in-person instruction. As a practical matter, if cases continue to rise, circumstances could naturally dictate a further extension of remote instruction.
“We have asked for a pause,” President of the White Plains Teachers’ Association Kara McCormick-Lyons said in an interview while acknowledging that in-person instruction is ideal educationally. “As union president, I think a holiday pause is a proactive measure that could help mitigate the post-holiday spread of COVID-19. This could ultimately help us sustain our hybrid program longterm. Let’s make the hard call now in order to sustain it longer.”
The White Plains Teachers’ Association issued the request jointly with the White Plains Administrators and Supervisors Association and the Civil Service Employees Association.
The conversation over a possible holiday pause is unfolding over the backdrop of cases increasing by 370 in Westchester on Tuesday and with White Plains battling 216 active cases. The community has not yet been designated a Yellow Zone by New York State, a characterization that requires districts where cases are surging to test at least 20 percent of in-person students and staff over the two-week period following the announcement of the designation.
In an interview with TheExaminerNews.com on late Wednesday morning, Ricca said a final verdict on the union’s request has not yet been reached. He did say that at any given moment, the district might have to pivot, which includes the possibility of going full remote. But he also stressed how the district has heard from just as many voices advocating for keeping in-person learning. The bottomline, he explained, is trying to provide in-person instruction for as long as possible.
“We have not made a decision about whether we will have to make a drastic move like that,” Ricca said, referring to the union’s request. “It’s a challenge. It’s really an hour-by-hour, day-by-day thing we have to monitor. We all understand everyone’s anxiety and everyone’s concerns, we’re all in this together.”
Ricca, president-elect of the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents, a non-profit representing 75 districts and four BOCES across Dutchess, Putnam, Rockland, and Westchester counties, also said White Plains has been able to keep student and staff exposure of the virus to a minimum and limit ripple effects due to “the Herculean measures we have put in place.”
As a regional leader among superintendents, Ricca was also asked if he’s heard of any other unions making similar requests. While he said he did not know any he could specifically identify, he also stated it’s safe to assume other unions are asking the same in their districts.
During a Zoom meeting on Nov. 18, Ricca broached the possible holiday pause, which he defined as after Thanksgiving and through the winter holidays in December.
“There’s a lot of conversation about a so-called holiday pause,” Ricca said. “We talked about this at our last reopening committee meeting. We determined that we weren’t making a decision on that last week. That we were going to continue to try and maintain our programming, our hybrid learning programing, and come what may move through that process and be able to continue to serve students in our facilities. We are of course always watching and are ready to be able to make a decision or determination if need be.”
But with many students and staff quarantining, and with anxiety already high, McCormick-Lyons said she’s fearful the aftermath of Thanksgiving and later the winter holidays could create an “exponentially” greater safety problem.
“We cannot afford any COVID tragedies. We can’t,” McCormick-Lyons said at the Nov. 18 meeting. “And so sometimes we have to make difficult decisions. This is a tough decision but I think an important one. And I think that it will pay dividends longterm. If we want to sustain our hybrid program then I think that is the smart decision to make.”
CSEA President Adele Herzenberg, for her part, also noted how the volume of quarantined staff, herself included, has made day-to-day operations a challenge.
“We are stretched thin,” Herzenberg said, citing the strains on teaching assistants, custodial staff, and others. She also mentioned how a pause could impact CSEA members from an employment standpoint, a consideration Ricca later echoed. But the concerns around furloughs are outweighed by concerns around safety, she explained.
“I also would like to say, as CSEA president, we always have the fear, if we have a long pause, of furloughs…no, this isn’t an easy decision for me to stand here and say that yes, I want a pause,” Herzenberg said. “It enrages me when I hear and read that all we want is to work from home. No, that isn’t all I want. I want a safe environment for myself, for all of the staff but first and foremost for our students as my children had the privilege of coming to our schools and being safe. With that said, I do believe even though we have the fear of a furlough if it went for a long period of time that we would be better off taking a short pause and ensuring that when we come back we wouldn’t have the numbers climbing as they are.”
Board of Education President Rosemarie Eller also cited the surge in cases resulting from Halloween gatherings and the concern over a potentially even more pronounced spike due to upcoming holiday travel and gatherings.
“It’s important to know as well that our students in a short pause would still receive their services, whatever they have been identified to receive,” Eller said at the Nov. 18 meeting. “And I do think a short pause really does — it’s an emotional reset, if you will, it’s an opportunity just to let things settle as they may and let us look forward to the hope that we hear is on the horizon in the news. I do too believe this uptick is a Halloween bounce. I am fearful of December 31st and what that can potentially bring into our schools and staff. Any negative outcome, even one, is just too much I think emotionally for any of us to bear. So I definitely want us to keep our students and staff safe.”
– Examiner editor Rick Pezzullo contributed to this report.