An Open Letter to the School Communities in Westchester and Putnam Counties

Common COVID-19 symptoms in kids include fever, cough, red throat


An Open Letter to the School Communities in Westchester and Putnam Counties from the Leadership of Teacher and Staff Unions

We feel compelled to write to you in a shared voice, as there are universal elements to our concerns about re-entry into the schools this September.  It is important to note that this is a discussion about re-entry, not re-opening.  The education of children has always been our top concern.  One truth that cannot be ignored as a necessary precursor to any successful model of instruction is a safe learning space.  Though we will open this September for instruction, the only question is the modality of that instruction.

All districts in New York were required to create a re-entry plan that addressed three options: full virtual, hybrid, and full in-person instruction.  The hybrid model is the most popular one for re-entry this September, but it poses significant risks.  The hybrid model requirement gained traction in the state early on, but unfortunately, most of what we have recently learned about COVID-19 and children calls the safety of this model into question. These risks are not a reflection of inadequate efforts by any district or administrative team in protecting the children and staff in their schools.  Rather, they are inherent inadequacies when a system designed around instructing students is tasked with creating learning environments that will protect children and teachers during a viral pandemic.  Additionally, there has been a failure in state and federal governments to ensure that adequate testing, PPE, and HVAC filtration systems are readily available. The requirements for the district plans were provided by the Governor’s office and the State Education Department in the middle of July and they were to be completed by July 31.  The Governor even added new testing and contact tracing requirements in the first week of August.

To create truly safe re-entry plans, districts would require more time, direction, and resources. It is telling that neither the state nor federal governments have provided additional resources to help ensure a safe re-entry; districts have been on their own.

Educators approach every task with a “can do” attitude.  Throughout the months of July and August, teams in each district leaned in and got the job done.  The plans were made and it is truly impressive work.  The problem, however, is that they are plans to meet government requirements for safety; they are not necessarily plans to make the schools as safe as they can be.  The limits of these plans hit close to home this summer when the Greenburgh-North Castle school experienced an outbreak of COVID-19, despite meeting or exceeding all Department of Health guidelines and having a very small student population. As anyone with any experience planning school events can attest, even the best plans on paper never match what happens once actual students are brought in.  Every plan assumes a well-behaved student body that will follow all directives and maintain masks and social distancing, even during hall passing.  Plans assume we will be able to hire enough leave replacements, substitutes, and monitors to supervise students in the next three weeks.  This will not occur.  When schools reopen with the potential of being understaffed, it will make an already unsafe situation even worse.

In every survey conducted about re-entry, the most important condition people require is that the schools be safe.  The phrase “Maslow before Bloom” is never more applicable than the current situation.  It is irrational to expect students will be able to learn in any reasonable manner when their teachers and administrators are constantly conveying the need for vigilance in mask- wearing and social distancing.  The constant need for vigilance cannot help but be internalized as fear and anxiety.  At best, schools will be more similar to a well-meaning prison than an actual rich learning environment where thoughts can be shared and joy can be expressed.

Before we can return to schools, we must be sure that every reasonable precaution has been met in order for schools to be safe.  The goal cannot be to just mitigate risk, but to create the safest possible learning environment.  Many of these requirements go well beyond the capability of an individual school district and require action at the state or federal level.  We may feel powerless to secure what is necessary; that, however, does not change the reality of its necessity.

To ensure that in-person instruction begins safely, every school district should be putting into place the following measures that create the highest health and safety standards for our students, teachers, and staff:

1.  All building-wide HVAC systems must be upgraded to a minimum of MERV-13 filtration, and if existing systems cannot be upgraded, portable units with HEPA filtration must be available for all indoor spaces.
2. There must be uniform standards for COVID testing that help monitor asymptomatic spread. COVID testing must provide accurate and reliable results within 24 hours in order to monitor asymptomatic spread. The current wait time can be as high as 12 days, which is not adequate to help prevent the spread of COVID by asymptomatic individuals infected with COVID in our schools.
3. Supply lines for PPE must be prioritized to deliver all necessary PPE to schools in a timely fashion. All schools must have an adequate supply of PPE at all times, including enhanced PPE for students and employees who require it.
4. School districts must be able to guarantee that there is sufficient staff to supervise students and provide instruction, even as individual staff members are absent for illness or quarantine, child-care, or personal leaves.
5. There must be a 100% virtual option for teachers and students who are medically compromised.
6. Plans should require a minimum 14-day shutdown once closed for COVID-19 issues.

Last year was the most challenging instructional year any teacher experienced.  There is no teacher who looks forward to beginning the year using remote instruction. Everything about teaching virtually is more complicated.  For educators, their classroom is their space.  It is where they conjure children’s dreams and give them the tools to fulfill them. Computers are sterile imposters that rob the experience of the richness of our relationships with our students.  Educators and students need to not only feel safe but must actually be safe in their working and learning environments.  Districts and governments need to strive to meet these expectations.  There is too much at stake to fall short of the safest possible model.

Additional Resources

Hybrid Model Risks:


New Information on Children and COVID-19:

Co-signing Presidents

Marcia Heffler, Dobbs Ferry United Teachers
Edward Caperna, USWOM
Michael Lillis, Lakeland Federation of Teachers
Nate Morgan, Hastings Teachers Association
Vanessa Vaccaro, Ossining Teachers Association
Tom McMahon, Mahopac Teachers’ Association
Jennifer Maldonado, Hendrick Hudson Education Association
Elisa Rosen, Hendrick Hudson Education Association
David Wixted, Scarsdale Teachers Association
Anthony Nicodemo, Greenburgh North Castle United Teachers
Mary Claire Breslin, New Rochelle Federation of United School Employees
Samantha Rosado-Ciriello, Yonkers Federation of Teachers
Brenda O’Shea, Somers Faculty Association
Andrea McCue, Haldane Faculty Association
James Groven, Irvington Faculty Association
Judith A. Kelly, Teachers’ Association of the Tarrytowns
Chris Tyler, Harrison Association of Teachers
Jeanne Whelan, Tuckahoe Teachers’ Association
Roseanna Cutietta, Hawthorne Cedar Knolls Federation of Teachers
Rick Tivnan, Brewster Teachers’ Association
Carene Domato, Mt. Vernon Federation of Teachers
Melissa Barreto, BOCES Teachers’ Association
Jeff Yonkers,  NYSUT ED 16 Director
Sean Kennedy,  Yorktown Congress of Teachers
Lisa Jackson,  Carmel Teachers’ Association
Janet Knight,  Mamaroneck Teachers’ Association
José Fernandez, Peekskill Faculty Association
Amy Geiger,  Katonah-Lewisboro District Teachers’ Association
Kathleen Fox, Edgemont Teachers’ Association
Miriam Longobardi,  Chappaqua Congress of Teachers
Jennifer Cole, Greenburgh Eleven Federation of Teachers
Jim Nolan, Mount Pleasant Cottage School Teachers Association
Kara McCormick-Lyons, White Plains Teachers’ Association
Alyson Tina, Ardsley Congress of Teachers
Ryan Odell, Putnam Valley Federation of Teachers
Catherine Armisto, United Staff Association (PNW BOCES)
Vincent Kennedy, Katonah-Lewisboro Support Staff Association
Jennifer Moore, Croton Teachers’ Association
Melinda Merkel, Rye Neck Teachers’ Association
Jim Agnello, Bronxville Teachers’ Association
Kevin Budzynski,  Elmsford Teachers Association
Clare Delongchamp, Eastchester Teachers’ Association
Vanessa Van Deusen, Graham School Federation of Teachers
Virginia Campbell, Mount Pleasant Teachers Association
Michael Groarke, Bedford Teachers’ Association
Sparrow Tobin, Board of Directors NYSUT ED14
Laura Beck, Orange-Ulster BOCES Teachers Association
Ray Hodges, Monroe-Woodbury Teachers Association
Theresa Uhelsky, Minisink Valley Teachers Association
Chris White, Middletown Teachers Association
Jon Wedvik, Clarkstown Teachers Association




An Open Letter to the School Communities in Westchester and Putnam Counties

24 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the School Communities in Westchester and Putnam Counties

  1. Maria Valentin says:

    I retired this year – a decision made before the CovId outbreak. I am so proud to read this from my colleagues. I pray that they are heard.


  2. Alice says:

    These demands ensure that in-person education for our children will not return for the foreseeable future. You are failing our children. Everyone else in this country is expected to go to work. Teachers are essential and need to do the same thing. Stop playing with our children’s future.


    1. Benjamin Lewis says:

      Hi Alice, It sounds like you’ve been required to work in person in this new pandemic-driven world. I hope you have been & felt safe there. Have you been & felt safe there?
      If you have been safe, what were the conditions held as normal and what were the conditions changed to accommodate COVID safety? If you have not been safe, what should/could have been done that would have made it safe?
      Shouldn’t we make sure that schools are doing those things to successfully keep kids safe, before we allow kids to go into the schools? That is literally what the letter is suggesting.

      In other words: we’re going to do our best to teach under whatever conditions are present (we in the general sense, I am not a member of LFT). It’s your words that “these demands ensure in-person… will not return … foreseeabl[y]”. We’re just reiterating what experts and common sense say would make it safe for students. So if you say that won’t happen, we’re saying “um, that means it isn’t safe”.


  3. Dave Whitlinger says:

    This summer was wasted creating three plans…. Back in July, all of the school districts in Westchester should have decided to teach virtually until at least November (longer if the virus is still active at that time). With that decision, the administrations and teachers could have spent all of their time and resources making virtual teaching as good as it possibly can be and all of the parents in the community would also have had time to prepare. Too much time and money has been spent on in-school coronavirus precautions that just aren’t adequate enough for teachers to be safe and for parents to believe their children will be safe. When flu season starts….the symptoms are the same as coronavirus and the coronavirus testing will take 2 weeks or more….it won’t matter if it is corona or a lesser flu, the students and staff with fevers, coughs, and sniffles will be quarantined at home. Knowing if it is coronavirus or not won’t happen for weeks as the testing labs get overwhelmed with tests from thousands of students and staff daily…every flu symptom individual will have to be treated as if they have corona…. The result is going to be virtual teaching for a vast majority of the students and teachers…


  4. Dawn Dentato says:

    Very well stated. Schools are not ready for re-entry but teachers are getting ready to re-open as they always do during this time. Perhaps schools could be ready for re-entry of all faculty and staff prior to student re-entry. Students could get to know their teachers without their masks on the first day while individual teachers teach from their home or classroom and students begin virtually from home.


  5. John Rutter says:

    What a wonderful document.It combines truth compassion and hard facts.It should be required reading for every one involved in education and parenting.


  6. Jeremy Weiss says:

    And all of you expected your doctors and supermarket workers to be present and available in March and April. Show up or retire. And remember the Taylor Law


    1. AA says:

      Health over everything. This is a Pandemic and you can’t blame teachers for the failures of our political system. We actually work longer hours from home, so believe me, we have children as well and want nothing more than to see our own kids in school, but not at the expense of exposing and spreading the virus. Essential workers are our hero’s but remember, teachers were never expected to rush into a burning building or put their life on the line. All we are asking for is proper testing and cleaning materials. This is standard practice in private industry. Look around your town and tell me teenagers are social distancing???? It’s not happening.


  7. Sue O says:

    The use of MERV 13 filters as your starting point for negotiations is misguided. We should turn all units to 100% outside air, turn off any returns, and find a way to safely draw air out the the building. The type of filtration needed to remove Corona virus particulates is way smaller than what we can affordable use in a schoolwide facility. (Also think about custodians who have to change those filters).
    If we make the masks such a negative issue, the jkids will find a way to be bothered by it. Let’s pool our resources and work with the community to prepare our students to wearing the masks for longer durations each day. Let’s start now. Let’s start a campaign to help the parents acclimate the kids to what they will see for the new school year instead of focusing on what is wrong.
    It is a hustle for us all to move forward with any learning scenario. But it has to be done.


  8. Benjamin Lewis says:

    Jeremy: This has been your kids’ teacher telling you that the school has not made itself* a place where s/he is confident that your child will be safe. Is it more important to you that your kids have 5-day in-person instruction & supervision, or that your kids remain uninfected by COVID? Because this is the teacher saying “I think your decision to send your kids to school or hold them home is kind of a choice between those priorities.”
    Do you value the instruction & supervision more than the health? (That’s fine, if you actually do; essential work parents certainly had no choice but to value the supervision more highly in the spring, and that option was preserved with reasonable safety, specifically by keeping home kids whose families were able to prioritize differently.)
    Or do you think you know better than your kids’ teacher whether the school is in fact safe? Where does that confidence come from?

    *Safety standard #2 and arguably also #1 are not directly in the locus of control of individual districts. Standard #2 reflects the overall community capacity to prevent exponential growth of infections. This seems like an important safety parameter, no?

    Addressing the part above where you were an aggressive, unkind jerk, the following is not any kind of threat or warning, just literally a prediction:
    The Taylor Law will be silent when retirement-ineligible teachers individually take non-coordinated action to be provided with work-from-home accommodation under the ADA due to their legitimately COVID-high-risk medical conditions. Or in some cases, if that is denied, to just take unpaid personal Leave of Absence. Taylor will be silent because it authentically will not apply.

    But even though case-by-case and not coordinated, this will still make generalized hybrid learning programs impossible, because that requires 100% staffing.


  9. Sherrie Greehan says:

    I’m in total agreement with demands 3 through 6, but #’s 1 and 2 are preposterous. It is completely unrealistic to demand entirely new HVAC systems and uniform testing standards from the school districts. This letter is basically saying that in-person instruction is not going to happen.


    1. Benjamin Lewis says:

      “Is not going to happen” is your words.
      Also, “completely unrealistic” is your words. I observe that you did not say “completely unnecessary” or “completely safe without”. (Of course you’re welcome to make a further comment amending your objection to one of those, if you can back it up with some facts?) But in lieu of that, the question becomes… is it more important that schools open right away than that it be safe for kids to attend them once they open? The teachers have recommended “no” on that – open with actual safety or not at all.

      Fact check: in measure #1, portable HEPA filtration is specifically suggested as a valid substitute for total overhauls / replacement of ventilation systems. In measure #2, I’m pretty sure ‘uniform standards’ refers to intra-district uniformity, which is just to say that the district should have a specific policy that it plans to enforce?
      But regardless, again, why is ‘realism’ the standard rather than ‘actual safety’? Like, my Dad is extremely high risk, so he is basically becoming a hermit, but for most people and even most senior citizens, going to the grocery store for 20 – 40 minutes is reasonably safe. It would be nice if you were evaluating these measures under that rubric – what would it take for going into a school for 7 hours to be reasonably safe for most of the people who will be going there?
      One might even say that setting a standard that doesn’t achieve that is unreasonable and … unrealistic? I mean, if we don’t set up the schools to prevent outbreaks, there will be outbreaks, upon which they will close and to 100% remote instruction. So, let’s either avoid that by being safe, or skip the part where people get sick and just admit that we’re teaching remotely?


      1. Sherrie Greehan says:

        I never said realism was the standard over safety. I was just pointing out the very high unlikelihood that schools will be able to install new filtration systems, portable or not in less than a month. Particularly in Yonkers where I live. Just like the school districts have had since March to figure this out, the teachers unions could have expressed these concerns and needs much earlier as well. Those of us that have had children at home for almost 6 months now are frustrated at the lack of progress and last minute scrambling and fighting. One of my children is special needs and she absolutely needs in-person instruction, the remote instruction this Spring was a complete waste of time and I am not trained to teach her while also trying to do my job so I don’t become one of the millions of unemployed. We need the teachers and the school districts to work together to figure out how to SAFELY get out children back into the buildings.


    2. Benjamin Lewis says:

      I absolutely hear you: your daughter needs better instruction than she got in the spring, and this should have been sorted out by now, and results are needed now rather than finger-pointing.

      Let me tell you what I would do if I were King of the School System:
      1. General student population 100% remote instruction.
      2. Buildings staffed on a volunteer basis. If this actually turns out unworkable/inadequate, obviously I’d get more granular, but honestly I think it would work out ok. Probably some hazard pay structure would be needed, redirecting from, for example, transportation funding that isn’t being used because schools are remote.
      3. In-person interaction at school buildings available up to safe capacities, for the following:
      A. Specific high-needs services for students with IEP.
      B. routine supervised care for children of essential work families
      C. small group academic support for special needs populations like IEP / ELL
      D. small group academic support for other students who are far short of proficient in essential skills
      E. small group classes for early childhood students for whom there is a really low ceiling on the efficacy of remote instruction.

      There is a direct trade-off between the capacity to achieve safe supervision of these high-need groups in the building and the capacity to provide safe supervision to the general student population, and the general student population will have to accept that, sorry-not-sorry.

      Small groupings should follow the European model, which was also used in NYC RECs last spring, that everyone assumes the risk of transmission within each group, in exchange for comfort of not having to wear a mask, follow distancing rules, etc, once isolated to the group. That’s important for quality of the education, as noted in the Open Letter, but also that’s important because it needs to be clear to everyone that this isn’t a fundamentally safe environment.

      I do not teach in Yonkers nor any of the districts that have endorsed this letter to date, and I am not an officer of the teachers’ association where I do teach, but I can tell you what my union reps have been telling me: the union has been routinely sending questions, suggestions, and offers to collaborate to the school administration, and these have mostly been met by non-response, stonewalling, etc. I hear similar reports from peers in other districts. Teachers have been trying to contribute productively, to voice these concerns directly, and it hasn’t worked. And generally, district leaders are not being straightforward with their communities about these risks. So late as the hour is, teachers are at least trying to get it clear to communities that the problems haven’t been solved.

      You want collaboration on getting “safely” back in the buildings. Unfortunately, this virus is contagious enough that group contacts are fundamentally unsafe. Schooling built around group contacts will be fundamentally unsafe to individuals. With some pretty extensive precautions (more than most school districts have even seriously considered, nevermind implemented), we can at least provide in-person schooling that poses minimal risk of “super-spreading” or extensive chain transmission outbreaks. But at the starting level of school staffing and funding, this is really only a practical possibility for some particular students who most need the in-person interaction.

      Also, for the record, on the ‘unrealism’ of getting HVAC up to CDC specs – I was on the phone with a rep for Dyson today, and he promised me a 20% discount on HEPA air purification plug-in models if we ordered as few as 6. If a school district needs 6 hundred how much of a discount do you think they can pull down (especially, if they also play the “think of the children” card…)? I think it would be pretty achievable if they just went and tried.


  10. John C Holmes says:

    Imagine if all the Doctors and medical professionals decided to stay home and hide back in March. No teaching at the schools, no paying school taxes.


    1. AA says:

      That makes zero sense and taxes aren’t distributed the way you think either. And yes, many Doctors are doing virtual appointments b/c they intimately understand the implications


  11. SE says:

    Why have this document three weeks before the school is scheduled to start? Why not in June or July? New York numbers are no different than Europe at this point. European countries are opening. Even masks are not required in most places.


    1. AA says:

      …b/c the re-opening plan wasn’t finalized until end of July and recently the State mandated additional major changes (Hepa filters, etc.), which is nearly impossible to purchase and instal by Sept.

      Many high schools (including mine) have up to 50%+ of school footprint built in the early 20th century and are ill equipped w/ air conditioning/filtration. In September, it’s not unusual for affected classes to have temps well into the 80’s w/ several fans churning. Besides being a terrible learning environment, It’s just another example of this country and govt. making the wrong decision and exasperating an alarming Pandemic. Too many are complacent.

      I want nothing more than to return to the norm and see my students/colleagues. That said, the priority has to be universal health and wellness. I know several of my students have pre existing conditions (many severe) who expressed they are scared and conflicted about returning. It’s not fair to staff AND students until Schools/Civic buildings are safely equipped. It’s not a big ask.


  12. Peter Kaufman says:

    This is a painful debate.

    Doctors sign up to be vulnerable in the face of disease. Teachers do not. Nor do ordinary business people.

    Nor do truck drivers who transport our food, or the workers at Stop N Shop

    And yet work they do. Because they need the money, and we need them to work so we can eat. Did any of them sign up to work in a way to put their health at risk? Of course not.

    Are we all boycotting purchasing food to protest the dangers for them? No, none of us are.

    I get All the issues. I do Not have all the answers. But I do Know we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We cannot bubble-wrap society or kids or teachers or anyone/everyone, else the entire nation grinds to an economic halt and we will have different kinds of disasters, all as or more serious as the one in the headlines

    Let’s all keep our heads and wits about us and work together in harmony to effect the best plans for our kids and our teachers. And understand that there will be no perfect solutions.


    1. Benjamin Lewis says:

      I appreciate that you are trying to look at this situation reasonably and with empathy and consideration for perspectives of many people. That said, and with genuine respect, I think you are missing the point because you are viewing this under the general lens of a labor relations dispute between workers, acting on their own behalf, and management acting on theirs. That view is not false, but it is fundamentally incomplete for a simple reason:

      Teacher working conditions are (with minor and marginal exceptions) identical to student learning conditions.

      It’s clearly true that, as persons with common sense, we teachers are worried about our own safety. But that misses the point: this letter is the teachers warning you that school district administrations have not actually taken adequate steps to ensure the safety of your children, and either from optimism or cynicism or cowardice they just aren’t coming clean about that.
      I’ve been paying minute attention to developments across 3 school districts (our district of residence where our 5 year old is meant to start Kindergarten, and each of my wife’s and my employers). Across the board, they are working really hard to implement precautions, and we appreciate that! However, the only question they are asking about that is “what other precautions can we add?” This is a great question, but it must not be the only question, because all it checks is effort. They also need to check their results – “have we made it safe?” The answer is they haven’t, and the 6 measures named above are an attempt to identify and thoroughly fix the crucial gaping holes through which outbreaks will inevitably get kids and their families sick, as well as undermine the hybrid in-person learning programs until they are lower quality than a focused, planned effort (which distinguishes now from the Spring 2020, to be clear) at 100% remote instruction would be.

      I hear you about ‘perfect as enemy of the good’, but this isn’t good right now – these aren’t marginal risks: Many/most schools are old buildings with poor ventilation, people stay in rooms with each other for extended periods, COVID is infectious by aerosol (PPE doesn’t fix, masks only stop large droplets), and asymptomatic transmission (which will sneak through health screening protocols because those, by design, check for symptoms) is routine without highly effective contact tracing because 40% of cases (CDC current best estimate) never develop symptoms and close to 100% of cases are contagious at least some hours prior to onset of any symptoms. This is a recipe for disaster in most school buildings.


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