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The fight over reopening Rochester City Schools: “I kinda feel like my child is a pawn.”

A hallway at East High School.
James Brown
A hallway at East High School.

The Rochester Teachers Association has strengthened its stance against students returning to the classrooms in the Rochester City School District. 

Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small plans to bring thousands of students back to buildings in February. A few hundred students with special needs returned to school buildings in early January. 

But the teachers union disagrees with that approach as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Members held a no-confidence vote Thursday night on the district’s reopening plan and threatened a no-confidence vote for Myers-Small if she chooses to move forward. 

This resolution, like previous ones, said the motivation was for the safety of teachers, staff, students, and their families. More than 70% of district families opted to continue remote instruction for the rest of the school year. 

Two weeks ago, the union passed a resolution called “RTA Resolution To Keep Our Students Safe.” Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski questioned whether there’s enough technology to pull off the plan, which requires teaching students simultaneously in person and online. He also said all teachers should be vaccinated before students return to buildings. 

The city district is the only one in Monroe County that has not had widespread in-person instruction. Parents like Kearstin Brown, who has opted to have her 9-year-old and 7-year-old sons return to buildings, would like to see that change. She may pull her younger child out of the district if it does not happen.

Full disclosure: Brown is an employee of WXXI Public Broadcasting.

“I kinda feel like my child is a pawn,” said Brown. “Especially with the title of the resolution. In that we really need to put kids first. I like unions, I’m a part of a union. But we have to look at the relationship between families and the union. If you want to use my family. If you’re going to use my child, in your resolution, then let's really sit down and talk.”

That inspired her decision to write Urbanski early this week.

“I am a parent of two at Anna Murray Douglass Academy and a member of our school's SBPT (School Based Planning Team),” she wrote in an email. “I am looking forward to our scholars and teachers returning to school safely.”

“The data that I am seeing along with conversations with medical professionals, superintendent, school chief, our school leadership and teachers have me convinced that this is possible,” she continued in the email. “I am noticing a disturbing decline in my youngest child's love of learning as he deteriorates in this remote learning model. He is also sad to hear that his own teacher sends her child to school and his Scout and church friends are also in school. For his sake, and the sake of other young learners in his position, I hope being in school will be what brings his love for learning back.”

She also asked what role parents could play to make that happen. 

"What can we do to help get our scholars back in the classroom on February 8th? How can we mobilize/advocate to assist to ensure our scholars get the best education possible? I look forward to your response and getting to work on this,” she wrote

Urbanski responded politely. Another man responded, too.

In an email that appears meant for Urbanski, the RTA’s labor relations specialist Dave Wurtz wondered if Brown could have written her email. 

“The word “scholars” is the tip off here,” said the email. “The same word Leslie (referring to Myers-Small) always uses, I wouldn’t be surprised if she wrote it.”

Brown took that as a shot at Myers-Small -- and as an insult to herself -- but said she’s not surprised by it.

“I have always had this feeling that at least in the RTA upper tier, they don’t always give parents the respect that they deserve,” Brown said. 

She said that's a mistake.

“They are serving our children, teaching our children," she said, "and the best way to educate a child is to engage their mother, father, family member.”

Brown wrote back to Wurtz and Urbanski, saying that she did write the email. She also forwarded it to Myers-Small. 

The district will not comment on the exchange. Despite multiple requests for comment, neither Urbanski nor Wurtz responded.

“In the end, we just want a choice,” said Brown. “And we don’t want that choice taken away from us by the union.”

Leaders like Monroe County Health Commissioner Dr. Mike Mendoza agree with her. On Thursday, he called in-school transmission of COVID-19 “very low.” He credited those numbers to “schools and parents taking the pandemic seriously and implementing precautions.”

Eamonn Scanlon, an education policy analyst for The Children’s Agenda, cited studies from the Centers for Disease Control and the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics with conclusions similar to Mendoza's. The studies took place in urban, rural and suburban environments in Mississippi, North Carolina, and Wisconsin..

A nine-week study in North Carolina schools said that the spread of COVID-19 was “extremely limited within-school secondary transmission.” Eleven different school districts with more than 90,000 students participated.

“There’s been a lot of data and information collected over the last nine months looking at schools that have reopened, and there hasn’t been an uptick in the spread of COVID-19,” said Scanlon. “There’s often less cases of COVID-19 in schools than in the general public.”

“Most importantly,” Scanlon added, “the cases that do happen, the overwhelming majority of them are community transmission and those cases are not then passed on in the buildings.”

Scanlon also questioned priorities, asking why restaurants and other businesses have opened before city schools. 

“Children really should come first,” said Scanlon. “If anything should be open, and we should invest resources in, it should be schools.”

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.
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