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Union urges vigilance on glitchy special education data system

The teachers union is telling its members that the Department of Education’s expectations around a new special education data system are “unconscionable.”

By tomorrow, teachers of students with special needs are supposed to enter information about them in a new data system, Special Education Student Information System (SESIS). But the system has been buggy since it went online this summer, and teachers are complaining that they have too little training and time to enter the information by the deadline.

A letter to UFT members today urged teachers to push back against unreasonable expectations.

“The problems related to SESIS are not your fault, but are a result of the DOE’s total incompetence in managing the school system as a whole and this initiative in particular,” said UFT Secretary Michael Mendel in a letter sent to teachers today. “We recognize your hard work and dedication. Unfortunately, the people in charge of the school system, your employer, do not. They do not value your dedication and commitment to your students.”

The union is encouraging teachers to let their supervisors know that the requirements are too burdensome and to track the time they spend grappling with SESIS. Teachers are also being encouraged to file grievances if they are told to enter data into SESIS outside of their work day or if they are punished for not meeting the data entry deadline.

The union has been juggling complaints about SESIS for some time. Last week, Mendel emailed the DOE to tell officials that he would not submit additional complaints about SESIS.

“Ok. Everyone no more emails either way,” he wrote at the time. “WE WILL NOT send you the schools where there are computer problems and WE WILL NOT send any more emails with complaints. There is no need. We all know that SESIS is a systemic problem that is affecting almost everyone who uses it in almost every school.”

Mendel wrote that the union had asked the DOE to inform principals about issues with SESIS in this week’s email bulletin to them. The bulletin included a link to an update about SESIS but highlighted only information about bilingual assessments, ESL students, and reviews for disabled students’ Individualized Education Plans.

Some guidance on SESIS Dear Colleagues, The Oct. 15 deadline for inputting encounter attendance information in the Special Education Student Information System (SESIS) is looming for those of you who teach students with special needs and, in many cases, your supervisors and principals are telling you to just get it done. From your phone calls and emails, we know you are working during your lunch, preparation periods, after school and at home and are still finding the task impossible to complete. We know that you are laboring with inadequate and often antiquated equipment, painfully slow internet speeds, and limited or no training on the system. The problems related to SESIS are not your fault, but are a result of the DOE’s total incompetence in managing the school system as a whole and this initiative in particular, said UFT Secretary Michael Mendel. We recognize your hard work and dedication. Unfortunately, the people in charge of the school system, your employer, do not. They do not value your dedication and commitment to your students. We believe what your employer is asking you to do is unconscionable. We have been trying for months to get the Department of Education to acknowledge the problems with its implementation of SESIS. Every single issue that you have brought to our attention has been shared with the DOE (without identifying you or your school, of course). In a recent email message, UFT Secretary Michael Mendel demanded that the DOE send a letter to you, your principals and your supervisors saying that it understands the difficulties you are facing and doesn’t expect you to sacrifice every waking moment in front of a computer performing tasks that are completely unrelated to the important work you do with kids with special needs. But they just don’t — or won’t — get it. We wish we could tell you to do only what you can during the work day and ignore this stressful activity outside work hours. Unfortunately, we can’t. Refusing to do work that you have been instructed to do would put you at serious risk of being insubordinate and we would never advise you to do anything that puts your job in danger. But there are some things you can do to try to get some relief. First, make the people who are imposing this burden on you understand your pain. Write an email or a note to your principal or supervisor explaining the barriers you are facing in trying to complete the encounter attendance records for all of your students. Be specific: Is it lack of time during the school day, lack of computer access, an outdated/inadequate computer or lack of internet speed/bandwidth? Some administrators and supervisors may not be fully aware of the things you do during the work day to support students and provide quality instruction and therapy. If that is the case, use your email as an opportunity to educate them. For example, if you are a speech provider who uses your preparation period to observe students in class, interview parents and teachers and perform other student-support activities, put that in your letter. If you are working on annual reviews for some of your students, explain what that entails, too. Be sure to be clear that you are not refusing to do work that you have been instructed to complete. Ask your principal or supervisor to tell you (preferably in writing) how you should perform these tasks given the obstacles. Second, keep track of your time. We have filed a union-initiated grievance claiming that the DOE has improperly extended your workday by failing to provide time and equipment for you to do SESIS-related activities. We are asking that employees who have had to work beyond their normal workday be paid for their time. If we succeed, members may need to provide proof of the additional time they worked in order to get paid. You can help us gather facts to support the union-initiated grievance by using our online SESIS issues form to tell us about your particular situation. We have also filed state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) charges — and laid the foundation to file additional charges — alleging that the DOE has improperly increased members’ hours of work. We will need your help — particularly documentation of the additional time you are spending on your work — in proving those charges as well. Third, file a grievance if you have received a directive from an administrator or supervisor to perform SESIS-related work during your lunch hour, before or after school or at home. If you received the directive in writing, be sure to keep a copy and forward it to me. If you have been told to do SESIS work outside of your regular workday, but your principal or supervisor did not put the directive in writing, make a personal record of what was said, the date, time and location, and the names of anyone else who was present when the directive was given. Individual grievances must be filed within 30 school days of the day that you were instructed to perform this SESIS-related activity. Read these instructions on filing an individual SESIS grievance. Lastly, contact your chapter leader immediately if you have received a letter in your file or your principal or supervisor is threatening disciplinary action related to SESIS. If the situation persists, ask your chapter leader to contact your district representative. Please keep my office informed as well. We are here to help. Be sure to let your chapter leader know what you are experiencing. If your principal or supervisor is ignoring your pleas, ask your chapter leader to intervene. If the chapter leader is unsuccessful, ask the chapter leader to seek assistance from the UFT district representative. Please keep us informed by using our online SESIS issues form. We can’t help if we don’t know what is going on in your school. (You can send us good news, too, although there hasn’t been much of that lately!) Fraternally, Carmen Alvarez, Vice President for Special Education