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Buffalo parents, teachers’ union call for more transparency and feedback in school reopening plan

Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
From left to right: Buffalo parent leaders Rachel Fix Dominguez, Charles Burgin, Jessica Bauer Walker, Edward Speidel and Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore hold a press conference on Monday, Aug. 3.

Parent leaders and the Buffalo Teachers Federation are criticizing Buffalo Public Schools for a lack of transparency and community feedback in the district’s process of developing reopening plans for this fall. The district posted a “working draft” plan on its website Friday night and has said “it’s not done until it’s done.”

The leaders of several BPS parent groups, joined by BTF President Phil Rumore, held a press conference Monday to voice their concerns and request that the district outline a plan for greater community involvement in the reopening process by Wednesday, Aug. 5.

"We just want to be clear that we have concerns about the process that meaningfully did not include us, totally, in the development—we did not see the draft [plan]—and left out students and community members entirely up until this point," said President of the District Parent Coordinating Council (DPCC) Dr. Wendy Mistretta.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Dr. Wendy Mistretta, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council (DPCC), said Monday that parents, students and community members have not been meaningfully engaged in the development of Buffalo Public Schools’ reopening plans.

Mistretta added that New York State guidelines made it clear that parents, students and community members had a right to be involved in the district’s development of a reopening plan. She and other parent leaders said they were included in some meetings with district officials in early June and late July, however, the district promised to hold community forums about reopening that did not take place before Friday’s deadline to submit a plan to the state.

“It wasn’t until last Monday that we were told this plan would be a ‘working plan,’” Mistretta said. “We never did get to see the plan that was submitted to the state, that has our names on it, until after it was submitted to the state.”

President of the Buffalo Parent Community Health Worker Association, Jessica Bauer Walker, said the parent leaders kept the first skeletal draft of the reopening plan confidential, at the district’s request, only because they were promised an opportunity for community feedback.

“We found that troubling [when it didn’t happen] because we do our best to represent the diversity of parents, but there’s over 30,000 students in Buffalo Public Schools [and] a lot of barriers with language and internet access and other things, so we want to make sure that we open us this process,” Bauer Walker said. “By August 5th, we would like an outline for a process that includes public input and making sure that we have an equity lens so that all voices are heard.”

The district’s draft reopening plan indicates that Buffalo Public Schools will likely adopt a hybrid model combining in-person and virtual instruction this fall, which some parent leaders voiced support of Monday in order to ensure social distancing can be maintained. However, both Bauer Walker and Mistretta expressed concern over an appendix included in the 99-page document in which Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash suggests a phased reopening that they say was never discussed with them.

A phased reopening, as described by Cash, would give principals, teachers, teacher aides and assistants and other faculty extra time at the beginning of the school year—before welcoming back students—to set up safe classrooms, learn about health and safety protocols and participate in professional development geared toward a hybrid model of teaching. Phase two outlines “greeting students and families either in person or remotely” while instruction would actually begin in phase three. The plan does not include a specific timeline for each phase beyond saying that the phased reopening would roll out over the first six to eight weeks of the school year.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Buffalo Public Schools Chief of Staff Dr. Darren Brown-Hall addressed some of the parent leaders’ criticism and took questions from the media at the end of Monday’s press conference organized by parents.

Superintendent Cash has not spoken publicly about the draft reopening plan since it was posted Friday, but district Chief of Staff Dr. Darren Brown-Hall attended the parents’ press conference Monday and took questions from the media after they finished their remarks. Asked by WBFO whether the district would agree to the parents’ requested timeline for a new community feedback plan, Brown-Hall said Cash’s administration does plan to seek more public input but would not release that schedule by Wednesday.

“I don’t like when people say, ‘We need it by this. We need it by that. Do this, do that.’ What I’m committing to you is, like Dr. Cash said, we are planning on having many groups and meetings to solicit feedback," Brown-Hall said. “If there are times when parents felt they weren’t included, they better believe that going forward they’ll be included at an even greater percentage because we do want to have those meetings.”

The district also posted two tweets Monday that said to expect the dates for community meetings to be announced “in the near future” and that the conversations will take place “throughout August.”

Brown-Hall also committed to publicly release data from the family surveys the district has sent out during the pandemic, including one on the question of reopening, which parent leaders said they have not seen. He did not provide a specific date for doing so.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore said Monday the district gave his organization “a seat at the table” but did not listen to teachers’ feedback.

Monday’s event concluded with a confrontational exchange between Brown-Hall and Rumore, the longtime president of the Buffalo teachers’ union, which called for the removal of district administrators in charge of the reopening process last week.

"We had a seat at the table, but what good is a seat at the table if no one’s listening to you?" Rumore said. “Having a seat at the table is meaningless if you don’t get any input.”

“I don’t want the public to listen to your lies,” Brown-Hall responded, before Bauer Walker stepped in to say, “Gentlemen, we’re not gonna go here today.”

Rumore further mentioned the possibility of a wave of retirements from older teachers this fall if they don’t feel safe returning to physical classrooms, though he did not offer any specific numbers. He also said there are no talks in Buffalo of a potential teachers’ strike for now. Some of the country’s largest teachers’ unions have said they will support “safety strikes” as a last resort if teachers don’t think their districts can safely reopen as the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen across much of the U.S.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to announce whether New York school districts can reopen fully or just partially this week. He also said Monday that districts need to do more to address parent concerns.

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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