Union leaders from school districts throughout Somerset County, representing more than 7,000 public school employees, have drafted a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy and Acting Commissioner of Education, Kevin Dehmer, calling for New Jersey schools to remain virtual until science and trends show it is safe to return.
The letter reads:
“As the calendar moves closer to the scheduled opening of the next school year, school communities are increasingly fearful of becoming pandemic epicenters. Students, teachers, support professionals, and families deserve safe schools, but that is simply impossible in the current climate. Reopening the school buildings too early will lead to tragedy in school communities across the state, unraveling the work we have all undertaken to manage the spread of the pandemic.
“Many of the social distancing and health recommendations we know to be necessary are either impractical or impossible in public school environments. We urge you not to reopen our school buildings until all of the following questions can be answered satisfactorily:
- Given that indoor dining in restaurants is unsafe, how can we serve food to hundreds of students in a crowded cafeteria which may not have air conditioning or proper ventilation?
- Many school employees will not return to school because of childcare concerns, pre-existing health conditions, or fear of entering crowded public buildings during a pandemic. Furthermore, we expect many more school employees will need to quarantine for 14 days at various points throughout the year. Schools already have a shortage of substitutes, and we cannot combine classes because of social distancing requirements. What do we do when we become understaffed?
- How will we socially distance in the hallways, especially during high traffic times such as period changes?
- Many districts are not requiring students to wear masks. How can staff and other students be protected if some students are not masked?
- How will school supplies be provided and disinfected for each classroom and subject area– pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, including special area subjects – since students can no longer share materials safely?
- How can we ensure all air conditioners and HVAC systems have appropriate screens in order to circulate filtered, clean air? What will we do about buildings and classrooms without any air conditioning or proper ventilation at all?
- When students engage in severe behaviors that are hazardous to themselves or others, as can be common in autism and other special education classrooms, how can these behaviors be deescalated while observing social distancing?
- How will each district prepare to manage the grief and trauma from the increased likelihood of deaths in their school community?
“These questions have no easy solution, yet they will impact the day-to-day reality of every individual in public schools. For the sake of our students, colleagues, communities, and families, we implore you not to reopen school buildings until all of these uncertainties can be fully addressed.
Like all New Jersey school districts, those in Somerset County are currently engaged in drafting plans to meet the governor’s mandate for a return to in-person instruction in September. Countless hours have been devoted by numerous stakeholders in each district to create plans that seek to keep students, staff and the community safe. But the reality is that many plans can only succeed on paper.
The SCEA also created an online petition inviting community members and educators to voice their support for a safe, virtual reopening in September. The petition, started on July 29, quickly gained momentum and is approaching 10,000 signatures. The petition will be delivered to Murphy and Dehmer.
New Jersey’s public schools struggle with shrinking budgets and failing infrastructure, all of which make keeping students and staff safe near impossible. The leaders in Somerset County, like all our country, have seen the dangers of reopening too soon and are determined to prevent the same mistakes and needless illness and loss from occurring in their schools.
Epstein said: “Around the world, from Hong Kong to Israel, we have seen new coronavirus cases skyrocket when schools reopen too soon. In New Jersey, indoor dining is still unsafe, so how can we be ready to send our children and educators into classrooms, hallways, restrooms, and buses?”
Last spring, New Jersey educators abruptly transitioned to virtual learning – many of whom were told it would last two weeks, not the remainder of the school year. This was no easy task, but New Jersey’s public school employees dedicated themselves to ensuring student success and delivering a high-quality education.
Kress said: “Unfortunately, the governor’s lack of clear and concise guidelines has tied the hands of school districts. They are being forced to spend time and taxpayer money on a plan that will, most likely, not even last a month before we forced back into lockdown. We have little time before reopening and districts have not been given the option to go fully virtual.”
Recognizing that trends are moving in the wrong direction and plans may not work, Somerset leaders are calling for a virtual opening to the school year and a focus on further refining remote learning.
Goodhue said: “Virtual learning is not ideal and presents its own issues but the reality of the pandemic is that we cannot seek what is ideal – we must seek what is safe. We are urging the governor to continue building upon New Jersey’s success in combating COVID-19 and keep our students, members and communities safe – they deserve nothing less.”