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Relaxed CDC guidelines for schools isn't a slam dunk with NY teachers unions

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Daily Point

Teachers unions wary of relaxed social distancing guidelines for schools

While the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s announcement Friday that the social distancing guidelines for schools is being reduced from six feet to three might have come as a surprise to the casual observer, the move had been telegraphed to the education community for weeks.

What wasn’t clear, in New York, was how the teachers unions would respond.

President Joe Biden and his administration have been pushing for a speedy, full-time return to the classroom for K-12 students. So have Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Republicans in New York and nationally — practically unanimously — and some very vocal parents.

The New York State United Teachers union has repeatedly stressed it believes in-person learning is best but argued it was also unwise in the many schools that could not accommodate six feet of distance, or supply proper ventilation, masking and extensive COVID-19 testing.

And as long as the CDC agreed, NYSUT could point to that guidance as a reason for hesitancy in some schools and districts.

And now?

In a news release, NYSUT agreed that in-person is best but added, "Abrupt changes can undermine public trust and clarity, and we would like to review in greater detail the science behind the CDC’s latest social distancing guidance. Yet it is clear social distancing is only one element of a nuanced and multifaceted approach to COVID-19 mitigation in schools. Universal mask wearing, cleaning, proper ventilation, contact tracing, COVID-19 testing and getting the vaccine to everyone who wants one are all still important safety measures for schools. If anything, these other factors — especially the need for robust COVID-19 testing in schools — become more important as social distancing guidance changes."

The release went on to preach caution, argue that the in-person decision needed to be made school-by-school and district-by-district and reiterate that "this is not the time to let down our guard."

The politics of teachers unions were much simpler when their archenemies, President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, were the ones demanding school reopenings and loosened restrictions, and the CDC wasn’t backing them up.

Now, with leaders who are theoretically allies but often at odds with some unions running the show in Washington, the terrain has gotten far trickier, particularly as parents increasingly fear that remote and hybrid learning has their kids falling behind.

For more discussion on COVID restrictions, different learning models and how they’re affecting schools, check out The Newsday Live webinar "Education and COVID-19: How Do Kids Catch Up?" featuring Roosevelt Superintendent Deborah Wortham, Lawrence Superintendent Ann Pedersen, Hauppauge Superintendent Dennis O’Hara and Syosset Master teacher Carisa Steinberg, available for streaming here.

—Lane Filler @lanefiller

Talking Point

Souls to the Poles in Garden City

It’s been a wild week in local village politics.

First came the news that Waylyn Hobbs had unseated Hempstead Village Mayor Don Ryan.

Now, add Garden City to the mix. In a village where 300 people usually turn out for village elections, more than 3,000 voted in Tuesday’s election. And they, too, voted against the incumbents by an overwhelming margin, causing a potential upheaval in the way Garden City historically has handled village elections.

Garden City has up until now been governed by an unusual setup, based on a document known as the "community agreement," where four property owners’ associations representing different parts of the village each elect a trustee candidate, who together form a slate that historically sails through every election without challenge.

This year, that slate included mayoral candidate Robert Bolebruch, the village’s deputy mayor who had served as a trustee for eight years, along with trustees Stephen Makrinos and Mark Hyer. The group, along with two new candidates, ran as part of what was called the Community Agreement Party.

But this time around, another group of Garden City residents decided to run against the Community Agreement Party. Calling itself For a Better Garden City, the group included representation from each section of Garden City, but they were not chosen by the property owners associations. The slate was led by architect Cosmo Veneziale and included trustee candidates Mary Carter Flanagan, Terry Digan, Bruce Chester and Tom O’Brien.

All of the challengers won by margins of more than 1,000 votes.

Veneziale and his slate ran on a platform focused on transparency and community engagement, arguing that the current board of trustees didn’t include residents in decision-making. The campaign became intense, taking on issues from the future of a local firehouse to the village’s fight over being asked to create three handicapped parking spaces in its downtown shopping area — a battle that cost the village $100,000 in legal fees.

One key topic that came up again and again: the utility poles that are part of the Long Island Rail Road Third Track project. Garden City residents have objected to the poles, in part because of the side of the tracks on which they were placed. The village sued the MTA over the poles earlier this year.

The newly elected candidates had promised in their platform to "assess prior Board of Trustees decisions and what options remain for Garden City to challenge the Monster Poles."

But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority won’t be moving the poles or changing its plans just because there was a changing of the guard.

"There may be new leadership in Garden City but the MTA is laser focused on delivering the game changing Third Track project, which has tremendous benefits for the village itself," MTA spokeswoman Abbey Collins told The Point.

One area where the village’s new leaders might have more success working with the MTA: advocating for the landscaping and other improvements still in the works for the tracks.

—Randi F. Marshall @RandiMarshall

Pencil Point

The power of vaccines

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Final Point

Does the NYCLU agenda offer a preview of progressive change in Albany?

In the heart of Albany budget season, it may seem like there is no legislative life after April 1. But there are plenty of bills left for the rest of the session, including priorities outlined by the New York Civil Liberties Union in a report earlier this month.

The group’s 50-page agenda for 2021, titled "Rebuilding New York," includes marijuana legalization and limits on solitary confinement behind bars, measures that have moved while the budget is being hashed out. But largely the measures are a preview of the fights that could be to come, including:

  • Further voting reforms like "legislation to permanently and automatically restore the right of New York parolees to vote in all elections."
  • Changes to policing such as ending no-knock raids for drug and property offenses, restricting police use of drones and acoustic weapons and DNA data.
  • Separating New York law enforcement more from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
  • Protecting workers from the spread of airborne infectious diseases and protecting them from retaliation when raising complaints.

Is Albany ready for these and other "bold, progressive" changes? Similar efforts were a challenge for suburban Democrats on Long Island in 2020 and could be again in 2022. But the NYCLU argues yes through a gloss of recent NY political history starting with the blue wave of 2018 that led to a Democratic Albany and the State Senate supermajority of 2020, accomplished even after those "progressive" ideas took hold.

—Mark Chiusano @mjchiusano

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