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Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash ‘not comfortable’ with full in-person reopening, discusses plans

Kyle S. Mackie

In a nearly hour-long interview with WBFO Wednesday, Superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools Dr. Kriner Cash spoke about the district’s reopening plans and why he doesn’t feel comfortable with a full in-person return to school buildings this fall.

KYLE MACKIE: Dr. Kriner Cash is superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools, a district of about 33,000 students and the second-largest district in New York State. Thank you for joining us today on WBFO.

DR. KRINER CASH: Thank you for having me.

Listen to the extended conversation between WBFO education reporter Kyle Mackie, WBFO News Director Dave Debo and Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash. This interview and transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

MACKIE: So, I want to get started by discussing this new study that came out just this week from the American Academy of Pediatrics and Children's Hospital Association that found that something close to 100,000 children across the country tested positive for the virus in the last two weeks of July. There's also been other studies showing that Black and Hispanic children, if they contract the virus, are more likely to develop severe symptoms and require hospitalization than their white peers. So, in your role as superintendent of this large urban district, what's your best guidance to parents and students right now as they think about sending their children back, potentially, to school buildings?

CASH: Well, that's the big question of the hour, in my mind. I've been been worrying about that for months now. I'm very familiar with both studies. The latter study in particular impacts Buffalo Public Schools. We have 83% of our children are children of color and come from high poverty, high need backgrounds and families. As far as income [and] as far as some of the health conditions that underlie many of our families that are exactly the kind that COVID likes, it seems. And so it's a big, big worry for me. And that's why I'm not comfortable at this time for having children coming back into schools in person. We absolutely want our children and families to continue for the children's education. I think there's been a lot of COVID loss, as we call it, during this time unintentionally, but it's just the reality. And the longer children for Buffalo Public Schools go without the supports, the many, many supports that they receive on a daily basis from our many, many professional educators, some, many of our students have six, seven specialist roles working with them in a given day beyond just the classroom teacher. And without all of that support that they normally would have, I just worry on end.

MACKIE: You said not being comfortable with students back in the building, but it is still an option--

CASH: For full [reopening].

MACKIE: Not a full [in-person] reopening. Right. So, it's my understanding that parents now have a deadline to select whether they would like to go with a hybrid in-person and remote option or the remote only option. Is that right? And can you confirm the deadline for me for parents?

CASH: Well, it's what we're trying to do. I don't like the sound of a deadline. In a pandemic, it just doesn't sound flexible enough for me. What we're trying to do is sooner [rather] than later, and we still have some work to do ourselves. So, after this Friday and by Monday, Tuesday of next week, we should have a clearer distillation of what these plans will look like. That way, now parents have a real option to actually choose from. I felt like we were putting them under a superfluous deadline of August 21 when they didn't understand what their options were, and so we're trying to clarify that and distill it down into a real, real good, if not graphic, a concise, verbal, three columns -- here's your choices, here's your options and that kind of choice. We would like that to be August 21.

MACKIE: So it would be August 21. Because I was just going to say I thought you said there we're not holding them to the August 21 [deadline].

CASH: I'm shooting for as close to that as possible, because we're coming up on September 8 [the first day of school]. If some need another week, we can handle another week. You see? So, it's fluid. It's fluid. But the sooner we get it back, the more granulated we can plan.

MACKIE: Okay, so you are looking to hear from parents sooner rather than later, whether they are voting for a hybrid model or remote?

CASH: I'm going to meet with another one [district parent group] later today, and I'll ask them, ‘What kind of timeline would be most helpful for you?’ Most of them are telling me, the most I’ve talked to, are saying they’d like to start remotely. And then they like this idea of a two-week timeline [at the beginning of the school year] where we go into our schools with select staff, and really pressure test a day in the life for all the student populations that we'd be serving in a given day, whether remote, hybrid or in-person, and take two weeks to do that. Have all the training associated with all of that and have the testing and assessment [of students].

MACKIE: You mentioned a few minutes ago the quarter capacity we have room for, about a quarter. Is that a quarter of all students at any given time, on a certain day, or we can only take a quarter back in school buildings at all this fall?

CASH: Safely. The issue I always come back to safety, [and] even then I can't guarantee zero risk. I can never get this to zero risk, right? But somewhere between a quarter and a third, we've talked about 10,000 students across 60 schools. And we've done the overlay on that, what that would look like per classroom, given the architectural footprint of all of our schools, which we've looked at very carefully through our consultant. And we can very reasonably schedule 10,000 students in across the district, using all of our facilities, keeping that six feet apart, probably 12. Eight to 12 students even in a class is what we could do. Depending on the population, we could do a smaller ratio for high need students, and middle and high school students. We don't see going much past 15 students in the classroom.

MACKIE: Alright, and that 10,000 students across the district and the 60 schools, is that on any given day? So, 10,000 students could come in this day and then a different 10,000 students [another day] or 10,000 students only are going to be the ones coming to school physically?

CASH: I'm sorry, it wasn't clear. That would be just for if people were choosing as one of these three broad options to come back full in-person, five days a week, every day, every week of the school year, 52 weeks, I'm sorry, 36 weeks, then we could accommodate 10,000 children.

MACKIE: Okay, if it was full, in-person—

CASH: Right. Up to them. My staff going to fuss at me a little bit [because] we can accommodate a quarter [of all students], but I’m saying pushing it to a third.

MACKIE: So, say I’m a parent. And I'm thinking about what's best for my child this fall. I decide a hybrid model is best. I'm okay with my child going to school a couple of days—I like the sound of the Monday, Wednesday, Friday [one week] and then Tuesday, Thursday for the second week. Am I guaranteed that option or might I be told, like, ‘We don't have room and your child is going to be remote only?’ How are you prioritizing who will fit into the hybrid model? Or is there room for everyone in a hybrid model?

CASH: Well, that's a great question. I really like that question. There's got to be room for everybody in that model, because if everybody chose the hybrid, that's what my directions have been to staff, is to plan for everybody. If they choose the hybrid, the sooner we knew that, then we would plan for the [nearly] 34,000 [students in the district]. And that's why it's a little bit of a moving target and fluid, because we haven't heard from everybody about that yet. But we are planning for everybody. Not everybody on Monday, not everybody on Wednesday, but all 33,000 would fit into whatever the hybrid [model] evolves into. We would not tell anybody, ‘You’re going to get kicked out of that because we don’t have room.’

MACKIE: So how are parents making that choice? Is there a survey out? How are they supposed to let the district know their preference?

CASH: There is a survey. To provide feedback, it’s buffaloschools.org/feedback, and [to share] your views on the reopening plan itself it’s buffaloschools.org/reopen. There's also a survey that is out and it's on our website up front, and that may be a different kind of thing, and that survey very clearly asks you to choose one of the three [instruction] options and then we'll gather data from that. It won't be your final thing to choose from. It's not the only timeframe but it's one that's open right now we'd like you to respond to it.

MACKIE: Okay, sounds good. One thing I'm very curious about with either the hybrid and the all remote option: Back in the spring when I was talking to students, there seemed to be a lot of variability across different teachers in terms of how much live instruction was taking place, or even pre-recorded instruction, really. And there was one student who said something that really stuck out to me. He said, ‘You know, it’s almost more like college. If the teacher can get back to you, they get back to you. And if they can't get back to you, they can't get back to you.’ And it just sort of struck me, it’s like more of a co-worker situation where that might happen with some of my colleagues in the newsroom where we get overwhelmed and we can't always get back to everybody. So, I'm wondering, exactly how much instruction is going to be required from teachers for each student? And I know it will vary by grade level. I think the working draft plan says something like, ‘Expectations will be established for the amount of synchronous and asynchronous instruction to be provided in each student's scheduled day.’ So, are those conversations in the works? How much instruction can a student be expected to get?

CASH: Absolutely. And I just got the advanced draft of that from staff based on some of the meetings and the feedback they're getting. I mean, I think it’s very important [to recognize] that last spring, we've never ever been through this. I thought the commendable part was that we shifted quickly, we made an attempt to provide remote instruction, and we stuck through it through the rest of the year. One of the highlights was we were able to get seniors to who, just like you said, a high school student who was about to not stay engaged, we kept them engaged. I made that a priority. They got hotspots, they got laptops, I went to work on those instructors for all of our seniors. You've got to put in the time for them to pass the courses they need to graduate and we graduated 75% of our students. That's extraordinary given our historic rates in the 60s [percentage wise]. So, I'm very pleased about that effort. It shows it can be done. But what we also learned, some of the lessons learned from the spring, was that it was very jagged and disparate, from school to school, from teacher to teacher. Some teachers were very innovative and did a lesson every day and then followed up with what we call the asynchronous parts of it with, you know, homework and research projects and readings. And they were terrific. They were terrific. They were like an exemplar in my mind. And then [with] others there were hardly any contacts and some students were frustrated over that. And it wasn't their fault, so to speak, that was awful. So, we we've been working hard to even that out.

And then that's why we wanted all of our union groups, labor groups at the table, because I want to know from them, ‘What does the day in the life, in your mind, need to look like?’ Because if you continue to allude to your contract, which I'm hearing a lot of—alluding to contract about working conditions and safety—we get that and we certainly understand and agree with that. But your contract also says that you provide seven hours and 15 minutes of instruction, or with your breaks, maybe an hour less than that, six hours and 15 minutes of instruction. So, what's that going to look like for you colleagues? How are you going to provide that? Because we want to hold you accountable to that. We think that's fair. We think that's what our students need and require, especially given some of the inequities that we saw in the spring that was occurring for our students. And we think that going forward with the loss that we have already anticipated, and once we measure that in the first couple of weeks of school to see exactly what it is, we are going to need our support more than ever. So it can't be less, it needs to be more, up to your contractual agreement. So, it can be asynchronous and synchronous, up to [teachers], but my expectation is six hours and 15 minutes a day and then you get an hour break. But your total time is seven hours and 15 minutes per day.

DAVE DEBO: The one area that I did want to have you address, Dr. Cash, is do you have any numbers about how many students just disappeared from the system? Maybe because they didn't have internet or because they didn't want to be a part of the remote learning experience? What are your concerns going forward about truancy? And people just kind of opting out?

CASH: Well, at the end of the day, you know, we're going to do our best to track that. And we have a system that we have established to track that. And we found that that was the case. But that's been the case all over the country. It's not just a Buffalo Public [Schools] case, you'll find depending on a lot of factors. You might not have been able to contact a student like we did, pre-COVID. Don't forget in New York, because a lot of the virus was raging here, early. People were leaving in droves out of New York. I don't know about Buffalo, but out of New York City, people were leaving and they haven't come back. And so there are people that took their families and went to live with relatives, [they] moved all over the country because it started in New York so badly. And then people were getting kicked out of the system because of bills, they couldn't pay the phone bill. Certainly, the internet bill became way secondary in terms of the bills that needed to be paid. So, we lost contact with a lot of our families. And that number [is] in the thousands—3,500 [students] is about my estimate of who we need to get updated contact information on. Somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500 students to answer your question directly.

But you know, the more that families have [faith] in us, the more they hear about what their options are, I think they'll make good choices, and we're just going to try to do the best we can without guaranteeing full safety or complete zero risk safety. Do you want to hear in one word what my answer is? I think we need to wait until there's a solution. Wait until there's a vaccine, wait until the United States isn't leading the world in new cases, every day isn't leading the world in cases per capita, like we are. There's a lot of concerns and questions that I have about this virus that we don't know about. And it's just a risk to ask school children to go right back into it—that’s the big, big risk. And I don't blame anybody who doesn't want to take that [risk] moving forward. They don't think that's right to do that to children. That's the balance and that's the challenge of what we have to do here.

MACKIE: I want to follow up on what you were just saying about how you feel it really would be best if we, you know, we need the country to be in a better place with the virus, right? I mean, we clearly don't have a national strategy for the pandemic and numbers are continuing to rise in a troubling way across the country. Are you speaking when you say that, like, we need to wait, we need a solution, are you speaking more in a personal capacity or as a superintendent?

CASH: I'm sort of speaking as both. Let me say what I mean by that. I'm speaking about it because of the risk that I know is disproportionate for the population and families that we serve here in Buffalo. And I just think about it as my own children and grandchildren, who are also children of color, regardless of the [financial] means, I wouldn't do it [send them back to school] except for remote. If there's one case [of the virus], just one case—that’s why I closed sooner than the governor wanted us to close. If you recall, back with the other Erie 1 BOCES superintendents. Cases weren’t too bad [when we closed], but I saw the tsunami coming, all the evidence was there. And yet we were trying to hold on, because nobody had said to do it [switch to remote learning]. I said, ‘We're gonna do it. Because I don't want one case.’

In fact, I feel more strongly about it [now] as an educator and as the leader, ambassador of the school system, than I did then. The situation is actually worse. Now it’s worse because we've never gotten the virus under any semblance of control. And we're hard-headed about even trying to follow any rules or protocols to bring it under control. We know what to do, but we're not doing it. We're not doing it anywhere. See, stay at home, unless you need to go out. If you go out, wear a mask, stay socially distanced. Wear gloves for all those touch spots to protect you and go and shut it [the virus] down. That's how you bring it under control.

We [also] have to test regularly and contact trace, so we know where it is, who is affecting and what the real number is. Because again, all of those indicators that I've been saying, that's what I've been mainly as a superintendent is, how does this thing work? What are we learning what's emerging? I stay in close contact with epidemiologists and pediatricians who are advising me professionally on this. And we've undercounted probably 10 times what the [official] count is. It may be exponentially higher than that.

And another thing we're learning, Kyle is that [in] a lot of minority families, Black and brown families, for different reasons—because of stigmatization issues and potential job loss—if it's found out that you have COVID or COVID symptoms, you [might not] report that to an employer. You know, what’s going to happen to you? And then for some of our families [there’s a fear] of deportation [and] just giving out any information at all, [the government] finding out where I am, who I live with [and] where I live. I'm afraid of that. As you know, we have a high number of what we call “New American Population” in our school system. So, at best the numbers are understated and undercounted.

That’s where the worry comes in, in terms of just going back in person and saying, ‘Oh, we’re great. We’re gonna do perfectly. Don’t worry about it.’ That I cannot promise. And that's what I'm trying to work on, as we try to work through this as a country. We've heard that there'll be a resurgence, possibly, here in New York right around September, October. Why start [school in-person] in September and October, [just to be] shut down again, within a matter of weeks? Was that a good risk? You see, we've been kind of left on our own with all of that, Kyle, which is surprising to me, frankly, not surprising, but it's disappointing that school systems would be asked to solve these things on the backs of our children and our teachers. So, I'm a bit concerned about that.

But what I can promise is that we have improved our remote learning capacity. Our training efforts and trainings have all been established and teachers are ready to be trained in these improvement areas to provide remote learning. And I want our families then to pick up their devices and make sure that they have it in their family [and] household for their children. That’s one challenge that I would like the city or big businesses to think outside the box and maybe help us with is turning Spectrum [internet service] into a utility, you know, like some of these larger cities have done so that we can provide remote WiFi internet access for free to all of our families. If we could do that, I would really be confident at least that we had done all we could do to provide this access to our families. That's the equity [challenge] that I haven't been able to solve yet. I'm working on it.

MACKIE: Okay. I was gonna say, I know that Spectrum offered a free option for 30 days or 60 days, and there were issues with that, right? So are you talking with Spectrum now about a possible extension?

CASH: We're talking about it but it hasn't gotten down to free yet. I think we're at $29.99 a month, and M&T [Bank] and some other businesses are stepping up to help us maybe foot some of the costs of some of that. So, there's a lot of partners that have said, ‘What can we do to help?’ and I definitely appreciate that kind of Buffalo support that we're getting from private entities and the public. And that's what it's going to take, frankly, for us to solve this in the short term.

MACKIE: Do you know what percentage of students still lack internet access at home?

CASH: As I said, we have a survey out right now. And what I thought the numbers are in these materials that I've been reading is that we don't know for sure. It’s like 3,000, 3,500 [students], something in that neighborhood.

MACKIE: Okay. You mentioned starting the school year getting into September. Let's talk about this phased-in approach. I'd like to hear from you a little more about what the first two to three weeks of school will actually look like—both for teachers and for students, if the district moves forward with this phased-in approach that is included in the appendix section of the working draft [document].

CASH: Yes. So again, this was an idea that I had seen as I was researching these plans all across the country as they were emerging. And it just seemed like instead of becoming embroiled in a battle with all of our labor [and] employee groups, we need to be fair and thoughtful for everyone—for parents, for teachers, teacher aides, principals, all of us who need to work out what a day in the life in school would look like—we couldn’t do it [planning and professional development] over the summer because we have summer school going on. We had a lot of summer programs and camps going on that were taking up staff time, even though they were remote. [It wasn’t possible] to have every teacher focused in on this [over the summer], but if we could take two weeks [at the beginning of the school year] and be at the school site and be together safely, principals and teachers, if they think it through, they can figure out what it [school] looks like and who to call in on what days and when.

All of our support staff is doing all the cleaning. They've got decals and signage and PPE [personal protective equipment] that has already begun to come in. So, we have all that, but we need time to plan that all out, [starting with] the safety protocols. First and foremost, people are saying, ‘It's not safe.’ Well, we don’t know until you come in and make sure you get your feedback in to see if it will be safe, because that's sort of idiosyncratic to the individual. Some individuals may want more PPE. Some may say, ‘Just give me a mask and gloves.’ And that's what I need. So, that would be one of the major things that would occur [during those two weeks]. Another piece that would occur would be all of this [teacher] training that is required. There [will be] training on a platform, one platform, not multiple platforms, just Schoology.

MACKIE: I saw that in the plan, yeah.

CASH: And that's what was causing some of confusion and some of that disparate learning that was going, even though it was well intended. It got to [be] too many platforms [for teachers and students]. Another piece—and this would all be going on simultaneously, by the way—but we need to assess what students have gained during these six, seven months, including the summer off, and what they have lost, both academically and in terms of social and emotional well-being and trauma. You know, there are things that we do to get at that by having a conversation. So, we need to do that [with families] either remotely or [in-person]. We’ll make if safe [if the appointment takes place in-person].

And then of course, going over to testing protocols, what happens if a child gets sick? What happens if a staff member gets sick? We'd be going over that protocol, which we have very specifically laid out now, with the help and partnership of the Erie County Department of Health. They've given us two very nice protocols that they are going to be responsible for: Here’s how we test and here’s how we will contact trace. We have experts to do that, but we need your help. The school will give [the DOH] the names of the people this staff member has been in contact with recently [if they test positive for COVID-19]. So, that is a very good partnership now that has emerged in just the last week about how we'll do that. And I think that'll be a big assurance to staff and students.

MACKIE: Sure, absolutely. They have the contact tracing infrastructure more set up now, and that makes sense. So, the first two weeks would really look like teachers getting up to speed on PPE, safety [measures], testing procedures, also professional development [and] also assessing students during that time with help from support staff, I'm sure. So, would there be instruction going on during those couple weeks? Like when might students start to get instruction?

CASH: Well, I had originally wanted—because this is a public health crisis, not an education crisis, per se—I thought that some of the regulations could be relaxed a little bit in this type of year, like they were so quickly [relaxed] in the spring, and I thought rightfully so. No one hesitated at the state [education] department [NYSED] to say Regents exams, accountability status and certain other [regulations], which you'll see there in Appendix B [of the working draft document], I believe, all these other waiver requirements, that happened in the spring. Now, I'm simply asking for some of that to carry over, because we're still raging, the virus is still raging. And when folks start to coming in from school to school, they're going to be coming in from all over the place. You know, vacations will have started, people start coming back into school, [and maybe] even into Buffalo for the first time in months. You know, we just don't know. So, and teachers have been on vacation or out and about and all around, and we don't know all the places—not just teachers [but] staff, everybody.

MACKIE: Right. So, at this point, is there a goal day for the start of instruction?

CASH: For me it was 170 days [instead of the state-mandated 180 days] and it would have been two weeks, if we got this thing [the waiver], and it would have been two weeks after September 8. That's what I would like to see.


CASH: And the reason I say that, because remote, even doing remote, you’ve got to get trained on that to do it effectively. You don't just start that and in the summer teachers are required to be paid 1/200th of their salary in order to get trained. So, if you do it over the summer for two weeks, it's quite an expense. And it's an unfunded expense. You see? It’s part of these expenses that we won't get when we're trying to save every dollar we can because we still don't know what the governor's gonna do to start reducing all of our aid. You see what I mean?

MACKIE: Okay, so that’s some of the reason why teachers haven't been able to do more of this training over the summer because of the also unprecedented budget challenges, as well?

CASH: It’s part of their contract they'd have to get paid and we didn't have that in the budget when we had a $90 million deficit that we had to cut just to get to where we are now, which is a survivable budget. But we knew because the governor has been portending it all along that if we don't get that additional support from the federal government, in these different acts, stimulus acts that they’re trying to get to come to the stage, then he said he’ll cut our aid in a fairly significant way each quarter. So, we have to sort of plan for that and leave some placeholders for that as well, at least in our big district, because most of our revenue comes from the state. So, that's why we haven't had these opportunities to be together to really hammer this thing out. And the first two weeks in my mind, rather than superintendents’ conference days, it's what we have every year—it’s two days, one day to set up your classroom, one day to do targeted professional development—that won't be adequate. That's completely inadequate for the condition of COVID that we're in.

So, two weeks made sense, and I wanted the unions, I wanted the labor groups to join me and request that waiver from the state. If we did that together, I'm sure they would agree to it. Because the governor said, ‘You got to be flexible with this.’ Remember, he gave all these sort of broad [instructions]: teachers gotta be happy, parents gotta be happy, everybody gotta be happy. So, one of the things that we would need was this waiver from 180 days to 170 days. That's all. That's what I was asking for, 10 days. If we can't get that we would have to start remotely. But now you're starting with something again, that the teachers haven't been fully trained in and they need time to try to perfect that and develop their schedules and develop their own comfort levels with teaching remotely better. And that's why that time is so valuable. And then as we get rolling, you know, we'll get better, get better, and we have better systems in place to track that, to provide immediate support to teachers, to oversee that, hold everybody accountable and be in better contact with families about what they need.

MACKIE: Okay. How soon are you hoping to hear from the state about whether or not the district is granted that waiver?

CASH: I don't have the support I need yet for that. I want the labor unions to join me. That's why I've been asking them to get into these meetings and to get into these talks. It’s one thing to say what you don't like, it's more productive and constructive to say, ‘Hey, here's what we’re ready to join you [on]. Here's what we want to do to support it so that we can do our jobs effectively.’ And now that’s happening this week, Kyle. We’re meeting with the principal’s labor union, the teacher labor union and the custodial labor union this week.

MACKIE: Okay, great. So, I know you have been extremely generous with your time already. I do have one last question. I want to make sure we address this: There has been some, you know, pretty high-profile criticism of the district for this reopening planning process. I myself covered a press conference last week in Buffalo, the first parent group press conference, I was not there on Friday [at the other parent group press conference]. So, the leaders of about four out of five parent groups have said that, you know, ‘We weren't engaged as meaningfully as we would have liked to [have] been. We also were promised these community meetings that would happen before the plan was submitted to the state. So, before July 31. Those meetings didn't happen.’ And then of course, there's been criticism from the Buffalo Teachers Federation [BTF] as well, to the extent where they are saying they're considering legal options about they don't want schools to be reopened with a plan that hasn't been thought out. So, I want to address this. What is your response to parent leaders representing groups of parents who say, you know, that the plan that was submitted to the state on July 31 really should have had more public engagement before that?

CASH: Well, first of all, I would reject the notion that those are high-profile parent groups. Those were two parent groups with relatively small followings, very small followings—

MACKIE: Well, there were representatives from four—I also had this exchange with [Buffalo school board member] Larry Scott on Twitter

CASH: Not four. There’s only five, there’s only five that we recognize [in the Parent Congress]—

MACKIE: Yes, but four of those groups were present at the Monday press conference talking about wide-ranging issues [with the reopening planning process].

CASH: I don’t want to argue with you. I want to correct your information.

MACKIE: I was there, physically, and there were four representatives from BPTO [the Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization] and Special Ed [Special Education Parents Advisory Committee] and [the District Parent Coordinating Council (DPCC) and Buffalo Parent Community Health Worker Association]—

CASH: No, BPTO did not attend—

MACKIE: They were also at the first press conference, I just want to say. They had a second one as well, but SEPAC and BPTO were also at the first one.

CASH: But they’ve been at the table. They've been at the table. It’s clear, it’s [in] writing, it’s false to say they haven't been involved. It's another question to say, because two of the parent groups said they were involved. They were very adamant about, ‘We were, we were included.’ But you have to understand what that first submission was. That first submission was an assurance submission. It wasn't a full plan to reopen. It was responding yes or no, basically, to a set of assurances. That's why when the governor said there’s 150 school districts that still haven't submitted their plan in the state, he's right. What they submitted was ‘Yes, we will assure that there will be safe distance, social distancing. Yes, we will assure that there will be hand sanitizers in every building. Yes, we will assure that.’ And it was an 18-page document that we had to submit to the state. And then the state came out with their guidance to back up those 18 pages of assurances. So, our plan to be expected by the state aligned to those assurances, first and foremost, because there wasn't wiggle room around that. We needed to align to those assurances and then we, I wanted staff and directed staff to then go further than just that, because that's the minimum requirement, and start to develop a much more rigorous and more complete set of descriptions of what we were intending to do in all of our aspects of our work. It went beyond just that.

And I said from the very, very beginning, [I] directed staff and they will tell you that, ‘Make sure that BTF is involved. Make sure that our parent groups are involved. Make sure that our principal representation is involved, and our teacher aides and assistants. I want them at the table, colleagues, when you develop this plan.’ That was my clear directive, they assured me that that was occurring weekly because I update and talk with them about the plan weekly for about a four-month period, and I had board members at the table who also confirmed that. So, for whatever that was coming out and wanted to make it [seem like], ‘No, it wasn’t this, it wasn’t that.’ Well, that’s fine. That’s their opinion. Now, I'm moving forward. We have about six weeks to have input. 17 meetings have been planned. Now, talk about what it is you would like to see. Give your feedback, strategize, talk together. I’ve got my best people at the table with you.

We had a great parent meeting last night, or at least a great meeting [audio breaks up] here. We changed our format from the first effort on Monday [on Facebook Live], which I thought was not adequate. Last night was much better, and will get better and better. So now, let's go forward and do this together. That's what's constructive, do it together. We all have the same concerns. And I'm here, as I wrote in my opening message: it's an open, flexible plan for continuous improvement. And let's do it, let's do it together. So, that's the issue on the parents. Parents are with me, the ones that I talked to, I just got the call from BPTO. She said, ‘Call me,’ it’s right here on my text. ‘Let's strategize together on how to do this. Most of the parents are asking for a remote option to start’—this is coming from the president [of BPTO] and ‘please call me so we can continue to strategize what can work in the best interest of everybody.’ A consensus plan is what I'm trying to get to.

Now, in terms of the teachers, the teachers—I wouldn't say that this is all of the teachers, I've seen those things, how this works and what NYSED is doing across the state right now. What I'm asking is not so much about what you don't like, or what's not acceptable, or what you're upset about. What I'm asking is, ‘What are you committing to do to comply with your contractual obligation to educate all of our students, to educate and support all of our children? What are you going to commit to? Whether it's in-person, whether it's remote, whether it's a hybrid of that, what are you going to commit to and what are your suggestions to improving it to the level which satisfies you as a professional, as a professional. Because your professional obligation by law is to educate our children for 180 days out of the school year, for seven hours a day, averaging. And what are your ideas for that?’ Because we're bringing our ideas. They're coming now, they're forming now more concretely, I talked to you about that at the beginning, with the three columns. Now, instead of just arguing about it, bring back your solutions and get ready to join us. Because you are the district, teachers. We're not, what is this, ‘the district?’ All of us are the district. Parents don't look at us any different. We're all the district and get with us and tell us how you're going to meet your obligations and what I can do, what we can do to make you feel most comfortable for you to do your work. I've always wanted that. I’ve always been about that. ‘How do we help you do your work best?’

MACKIE: I think I'm going to know the answer to this question, but I'm going to ask anyway: Are any of those labor union meetings open to the media or open to the public? Are those discussions taking place—those are private meetings, right?

CASH: Probably at their request, they are, but I have no objection to them being open if you want to reach out and ask them, do they want to do it in open? That's fine. Do that.

MACKIE: Yeah, I may do that.

CASH: I have no qualms about it. Our general counsel might say something different about that because of some law or some something, I don't know, but I would love those to be public, and you can hear our viewpoints about it as administration and then you can hear their concerns and their viewpoints. And the point is to get to ‘yes.’ At the end of the day, somewhere, sometime, in some fashion, schools are going to be open this year. I do not see this, I do not want this to be a lost year. It cannot be, even if the COVID is raging, we’ve got to do it remotely then and we’ve got to do it better remotely. So, help me work out what that will look like and how we can do it best to meet the needs of our children. To me, that's not an option. It's not an option to sit this year out. We’ve got to do that. We’ve got to do it safely. For all the reasons we've already talked about, Kyle.

MACKIE: Mr. Rumore, Phil [BTF President Phil Rumore] had mentioned something at that press conference last week about the possibility of a wave of teacher retirements if they're not, if they don't feel comfortable coming back to the classroom and they might think, ‘You know, I'm kind of ready to get out of here.’ Is that something you're worried about or hearing talk of? Or the possibility of teacher strikes? Is that anything that you're hearing at this point?

CASH: Well, no, I'm not worried about teachers leaving the profession because of medical reasons or feeling like it's not a safe environment to continue teaching. Here we get, you know, several hundred retirements every year that we have to plan for. So, I'm not concerned about that, per se. That's a personal professional decision that each person has to make. I just lost four principals, for example, to retirement that I wish would come back, you know, so that happens every year. And it's tough anytime we lose, especially veteran teachers to retirement. But on the second one, what was it?

MACKIE: Teacher strikes. I also asked Phil [Rumore] this and he said it's not something he's hearing at this time, but I just wanted to pose that to you too.

CASH: I don’t think it’s legal. I don’t think it's legal for teachers to strike in New York. I think there's something against that, it’s like a law against that. I’d have to double check that but I believe it's not legal for them to strike. Or at least if they did, they don't, you know, it's not like they get paid during a strike or something like that. I can't imagine them doing that with all the challenges that folks are having economically and where the economy is right now for so many people. I can't imagine that that would be an option right now. And what I'm simply trying to say is, ‘Get to the table, work out what it is,’ I use the analogy of the healthcare workers in the hospital system, you know, that's their job. That's their occupation. That's their work. I wouldn't just thrust you into an unsafe environment but what I'm asking you is, ‘What would be your tolerance point for safety for you? Because you’re doing something right now.’

People are going shopping at Wegmans, people are going to the hairdresser, they're going to the workout machines, you know, they go work out the gym, apparently, and I'm not saying who or where, but a group of people are going to the establishments after hours and so forth. That’s why there’s a lawsuit going on about it. So, people are living their lives. Let’s make school [part of that], at least to the standard that you accept when you go out and live your life. That's not an unreasonable expectation. I think we're caught up on controversy and adversary as opposed to a working-together solution. That's what it’s going to take. There's no way the district has all the answers to something this challenging and globally complex and emerging every day, Kyle, it changes every day. I can anticipate that even by September 8, we may have something that says, ‘Nope. Schools will be delayed until such-and-such, remote learning only.’ We're even finding small school districts in the in the area—Maryvale, some others—they’re going to start remotely. A lot of folks are going to remote day by day, going that way because of safety. So, this is a fluid issue. I’m looking for a consensus decision among our key stakeholders, and then we will go forward with our very, very best effort to make it happen.

MACKIE: Okay, great. I think we will leave it there for today. Thank you for being so generous with your time. We greatly appreciate it.

CASH: Thank you. Always appreciate your time, too.

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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