New York’s statewide teachers union is exploiting a lack of direction from Governor Andrew Cuomo to force an early end to the school year.

A May 8 memo from New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) leadership to its local presidents, a copy of which was obtained by the Empire Center, says “barring any further guidance from the Governor, school districts can finish the 2019-20 school year when the contractual number of days is met.”


This is an installment in a special series of #NYCoronavirus chronicles by Empire Center analysts, focused on New York’s state and local policy response to the Coronavirus pandemic.


The state Education Department, interpreting Cuomo’s executive orders, told schools to continue their modified teaching operations through spring break periods that had been scheduled for April—something NYSUT did not publicly oppose at the time. 

However, the teachers’ union now argues districts must slice five days off the normally scheduled end of the school year. NYSUT is leaning on the fact that teacher contracts fix salaries based on the number of days worked, rather than hours.

And it stands to reason that many New York public school teachers have worked fewer hours since the crisis began. The New York Post last month reported that some teachers had “abandoned” live instruction and were in contact with their students less than once a week. 

The state does not appear to be verifying, or even attempting to document, the amount of teaching actually taking place. State exams have been canceled, students in most cases won’t be getting normal grades, and the governor’s orders have left districts with no alternative but to keep paying teachers regardless of how much time or effort they’re putting in.

Despite all of that, school districts face a predicament: remain virtually “open” and risk litigation from teachers claiming they’re owed extra pay, or chop a week off of what’s already been a severely disrupted school year. Under New York’s public-sector collective bargaining law, virtually every facet of school district operations is governed by union contracts, which dictate everything from the length of the school year to the size of bulletin boards in the teachers’ lounge.

Cuomo can and should intercede using his special emergency powers granted by the Legislature to allow school districts to calculate the time worked, even if just for the remaining month of school, in hours that would together count toward the agreed-upon number of days.

At a time when close to two million New Yorkers are out of work, New York public school teachers have not only continued getting their full pay (and possibly stipends for non-existent duties), they’ve also kept racking up credits toward defined-benefit pensions. Asking the country’s highest-paid educators to put in the hours they were expected to work isn’t unreasonable.

After all, as NYSUT is keen to otherwise point out, it’s for the children.

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