Buffalo Teachers Federation initiates legal action against in-person teaching requirement

Sep 1, 2020

The Buffalo Teachers Federation requested an emergency injunction from the state supreme court Monday that would prevent Buffalo Public Schools from requiring teachers to report to school buildings at least two days per week this fall, if secured.

The legal action followed a BTF poll that found that 70% of Buffalo teachers surveyed (1,866) oppose the district’s reopening plans either because they do not provide “safe and healthful [working] conditions” and/or “quality education for students,” according to the federation.

“Teachers have overwhelmingly said that they do not believe that the district has implemented protocols and procedures and made the buildings safe for them or students in the future,” BTF President Phil Rumore told WBFO Monday. “They’ve told us to initiate legal action, which we have commenced today, to try and prevent the district from forcing teachers, for example, to go into the schools even though we have virtual learning going on at the beginning of the year.”

Buffalo Public Schools announced a remote-only start to the 2020-2021 school year earlier this month. About three out of four Buffalo teachers participated in the BTF poll, according to a media advisory released Monday.

“We have some of our schools that have over 100 teachers in the building. They’re going to be using restrooms, they’re going to be seeing each other,” Rumore said, elaborating on the concerns he said he’s heard from teachers. “It’s an unnecessary risk, and it’s not needed. There’s no reason to have teachers in the building.”

Buffalo Public Schools General Counsel Nathaniel Kuzma, however, said safety is the district’s first priority and that the in-person requirement for teachers is partially about reestablishing public trust after a turbulent switch to remote learning in March.

“There is merit and a benefit to having teachers inside of their classroom for some of the week to deliver the best education that they possibly can,” Kuzma said. “That is the place that they would normally deliver instruction. It’s the place where students would normally receive instruction, and so we are trying to phase back in some normalcy to our educational programming, unlike what we were dealing with in the spring.”

Kuzma also said that Rumore is relying on a familiar tactic and that he always planned to sue the district over the reopening process.

“We think it’s baseless, it’s unfounded, it’s presumptuous, as no teacher has been in the schools to even determine whether they are safe, you know, unlike the grocery stores and the bars and other places where they may have been,” Kuzma said. “One thing that’s been lacking from the federation is leadership. We have not heard one solutions-based suggestion, unlike what we’ve received from some of our other bargaining units.”

Rumore said he would be open to a voluntary option for teachers to work from their classrooms if they feel comfortable doing so once the BTF and district officials agree on stronger sanitation and air filtration protocols, as well as contact tracing.

“Volunteering is different than making you go in there when you’re actually asking some of our teachers to risk their lives in unsanitary conditions,” he said.

Kuzma said in a written statement Monday that the district’s reopening plan follows all health and safety guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Erie County Department of Health and Buffalo Public Schools’ health advisory committee.

“Without students in the building, the district is confident that teachers will be safe instructing students from their classrooms, and students will receive the vital and meaningful instruction that teachers are responsible for.”

Neither Rumore or Kuzma said they expected the legal proceedings to delay the first day of instruction scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 8. District teachers are scheduled to start professional development for virtual learning this Tuesday.