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  • Writer's pictureMike Zilles

May 25, 2020 EBulletin

We have four weeks of school remaining. Distance Learning remains exhausting, exacerbated by so much uncertainty. Even as states begin reopening, public health experts warn of the high level of risk this entails. Will there be another surge across the nation in late June, July, or August? Will school buildings reopen when we return to teaching in September? If they do, will it be safe to work in them? What will teaching and learning look like? Could we return in the fall and continue teaching remotely? If so, how long will that last, and what expectations will the district have for us? Will the distance learning model change? Will buildings open later in the fall? If not in the fall, then when? What can we do over the summer to plan for the fall? I don't have definitive answers to any of these questions, but I can tell you what we are doing to address the uncertainty. First, some thoughts on Special Education, and then on the summer and fall.

Special Education

The workload of special education teachers is unsustainable. Any thoughts about what will happen in the fall must take into account that special educators cannot do more. On the contrary, they must do less.  On most matters regarding distance learning, the NTA has felt like it is on the same page with the district. We have shared the same values, if not the specifics of how to put into practice those values, and we have been able to work collaboratively.  Not so with special education.  In phase one of the NPS distance learning plan, the primary focus of special educators was collaborating with general education teachers to support students in accessing the curriculum, and to address their social and emotional needs. From the day the district first began distance learning, special educators were working overtime to support their students, because distance learning presented extraordinary challenges to these students. Phase two of the NPS Distance Learning Plan required special educators to make a huge shift in focus. They had to begin delivering the direct services on their students' IEPs, coordinate services with other providers and write weekly service plans, conduct weekly consults with parents, attend full school staff meetings, PLC meetings, school special education business meetings, and more. And they were told, effectively, to stop doing much of the work they had been doing in phase one. For anyone who really believed that was going to happen, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you. The district insisted on introducing all of these new responsibilities at the same time; we recommended they introduce them slowly, so as not to overwhelm our members, and we insisted the district negotiate how much time special educators would spend delivering services. The district refused. They said that we could not hold up the release of the revised distance learning because of this "detail." Then they released phase two of the distance learning plan to staff before we had reached agreement with them on our concerns. Almost immediately, special educators began calling and writing to us to tell us that they were overwhelmed. We met with Central Staff to address these concerns. They would not budge. Their mantra was, and continues to be, that they are doing what is required by the state, which takes its marching orders from the federal government. Instead of relief, the district added more duties: IEP meetings, supervision of Unit C members, end of year progress reports, and, the coup de grace, an end of year form, which I will "affectionately" name the "After School Closure Documentation of Service Offerings and Delivery in Accordance with the Goals on the Student IEP Report," or, for short, "The Report."  Now, mind you, our special educators have been doing a phenomenal job, and by all accounts, the vast majority of the parent community is deeply appreciative of everything educators are doing for their children. In fact, they are appreciative in spite of feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer amount that parents must do to support their children to access all these services. The Report is not for them.  As the year winds down, the district offers no relief on the tail end either; special educators are expected to write all of those progress reports, and enter data into "the Report,"...and continue delivering services until the very last day of school...and find some time meanwhile to get into the buildings, retrieve anything they might need for the summer, close up their classrooms--and reschedule any service delivery planned during this time.  The state and federal government may require a good deal of what Newton is asking of special educators. But there is always room for interpretation. Newton is choosing to interpret those regulations in a way that provides the district with maximal protection against potential liability, while putting an unsustainable burden on special educators. The Report is for the potential litigants. Continuing to put an unsustainable burden on special educators compromises the collaborative relationship that will be critical for the NTA and the NPS to work together to address the enormous challenges facing us in the fall. 

Summer and Fall

As I shared with you last week, the American Federation of Teachers has put out excellent guidelines on what districts need to do--and what unions need to advocate for—to return to school safely. You can see these guidelines here. They are informing our deliberations in the NTA about how to protect members in the fall...and what we need to do now, and in the summer, to prepare.

The first priority of the NTA for this fall will be the health and safety of our members, and the students they educate. There will be many members, and many students, who, because of the risk to their health posed by COVID-19, will not be safe to return to school buildings in the fall, irrespective of any precautions we put into place to mitigate risk. We will negotiate to protect these members, and to find fruitful ways they can contribute to the learning plan for the fall without have to risk their health. While we all hope that sometime before the end of next school year we can return to a normal school day within the school buildings, it is unlikely that this will be possible in the early fall.  That leaves two possibilities: that we re-enter the buildings in some sort of revised school day that allows for smaller groupings of students, permits social distancing, and makes it possible to isolate and quarantine groups of students and educators who contract the virus. There are numerous approaches to doing this...none are ideal. The second possibility is to revise the distance learning plan and continue teaching remotely. That is hardly ideal either. There is no ideal.  Moreover, it is quite possible that this fall we have to transition from distance learning back to in-school learning, and then back to distance learning...perhaps more than once. Or groups of students and educators will need to be quarantined for a period of time, continue teaching and learning remotely together, while in-school learning continues for other educators and their students. Or whole schools may need to be quarantined, continue teaching and learning remotely, while other schools in the district continue with in-school teaching and learning. Some students may need to be taught remotely most of the year; some educators may need to work remotely most of the year.  In short, next year is going to be incredibly complicated. What will be critical, to my mind, is a plan that allows transitions from in-school learning to distance learning to be as smooth as possible. And a plan that recognizes that we cannot do it all...that next year is going to be incredibly stressful, on us, and on our students, and that academic progress must continue to take a back seat to social and emotional well-being. And that we must all work together to keep everyone healthy. We don't know yet what this is going to look like, and, frankly, based on what I know is going on at DESE, the guidance we get is not likely to be all that helpful.  We will have to negotiate this ourselves. MTA will provide us guidance. And we will be counting on you to provide us the educator voice and insight, to make the best of it. Together, we will navigate this safely. More to follow. New Member Training Opportunities The MTA is offering a webinar targeted to new members on loan forgiveness. Space is limited. If you are unable to register, or if you have questions, contact NTA New Member Liaison, Ariana Foster, If there is enough local interest in the these workshops, we might be able to schedule a workshop specifically for Newton educators. Loan Forgiveness: The Loan Forgiveness training, conducted by credit expert Todd Friedhaber of Cambridge Credit Counseling,  explains exactly what educators need to do to qualify for federal loan forgiveness.  Registration link:

Wednesday, May 27, 6:30-8:00pm

Monday, June 1, 3:00-4:30pm

Deadlines Health Insurance Open Enrollment Period ends this Friday, May 29, at 5:00 p.m. For more information on how to change your health insurance selection with the Newton Public Schools, click here to visit the NPS Human Resources Benefits page.  Out-of-Assigned District Application for children of NTA members due June 1. The district has extended the deadline for submitting an application to have your children attend the NPS if you live out-of-district until June 30.  The Google Form for applying can be accessed by clicking here. **** Thank you for reading. "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose." Please take care and stay well. Mike  


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