East Windsor Education Association says staff ‘afraid of’ in-person learning


School district officials have put the finishing touches on the East Windsor Regional School District’s re-entry plan for students for the 2020-21 school year, and sent it to the Mercer County Superintendent of Schools and the New Jersey Department of Education for review.

The re-opening plan, in anticipation of the first day of school on Sept. 8, was approved unanimously by the East Windsor Regional School District Board of Education at its Aug. 3 meeting.

But the plan, which is posted on the school district website at www.ewrsd.org, has generated concern from the East Windsor Education Association, which represents the teachers. Some of the teachers are concerned about their health – possibly being infected with COVID-19 and bringing it home to their own families.

The re-entry plan calls for a hybrid model that combines in-person learning and remote learning for students. It allows for an all-remote learning model for families who choose that option.

On July 20, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that parents would be given the option to select an all-remote learning plan for their children if they do not want to send them for in-person education in the new academic year.

Social distancing and space requirements are the driving force behind the move to a hybrid model of in-school and remote learning.

A survey of East Windsor school district parents last month showed that 56% of parents preferred the hybrid model and 44% chose the all-remote model, Superintendent of Schools Mark Daniels said.

The survey also revealed that 96% of student households have broadband/high speed Internet access, and that 90% of students have access to a Chromebook, iPad, laptop or desktop computer.

For the 10% who do not have access to a Chromebook or similar device, the school district will provide one. The district already provides Chromebooks to students in grades 8-12, and it is ready to provide one to all students from pre-K to 12th grade.

Daniels said that while the public health data and the trends as they currently stand support the re-opening of school for some in-person education, the East Windsor district is ready to to pivot to all-remote learning if it becomes necessary.

“I feel we are in a good position to make the transition (to fully remote learning),” Daniels said. The district has learned much since its initial experience with remote learning in the spring, he said.

Under the plan, the in-person school day would be a half-day, Daniels said. Class sizes would be limited to a maximum of 12 students to allow for social distancing. Students would be provided with a grab-and-go boxed lunch.

Desks would be placed 6 feet apart, and plexiglass shields would be installed in the offices and classrooms. There would be hand sanitizing stations spread throughout the building.

The bathrooms and other high-touch surfaces would be cleaned frequently during the day, and the buildings would get a “deep clean” overnight.

Students who opted for the hybrid plan would be divided into two groups, Daniels said. They would take turns attending class in person, on an alternating A Day/B Day schedule.

Students in Group A would attend in-person class in the morning, while students in Group B would view the in-class lessons at home. Group B students would receive structured, live remote support in the afternoon.

On the days when Group B students attend in-person class in the morning, students in Group A would view the in-class lessons at home. Group A students would receive structured, live remote support in the afternoon.

Students and staff would be screened for COVID-19 symptoms and exposure before they would be allowed to enter the school, Daniels said. All would be required to wear face masks. Visitors, who would be admitted by appointment, would be screened and required to wear a face mask.

If a student or staff member becomes ill during the day, they would be sent to the school nurse’s office. They would be guided to the isolation room, based on the nurse’s assessment, while waiting for someone to take them home. They would remain in quarantine, and contact tracing would be initiated.

Daniels also said the high school fall sports season would be delayed, per the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. The final decision would be made in late August. It is doubtful that middle school sports teams would be able to play, he said.

If it is feasible, after-school clubs could be offered virtually, Daniels said.

Noting that the number of COVID-19 cases has “bounced around,” school board member Bertrand Fougnies asked Daniels at what point would the school district switch to remote learning.

Daniels said that if the numbers of COVID-19 cases keep going up in the surrounding communities, he would close the school if he thought it necessary. He said he would not close the schools once or twice a week. There would have to be many cases to close the schools.

In response, school board vice President Tina Lands said she has “faith in the district” to make the right decision.

When the meeting was opened for public comment, East Windsor Education Association President Ellen Ogintz thanked the administration for working out the logistics to make it as safe as possible for students and staff.

“(But) as safe as possible is not enough,” Ogintz said.

According to Gov. Murphy, she said, there is evidence that COVID-19 is more lethal indoors than outdoors. The World Health Organization also has said that it spreads more easily in crowded, enclosed and poorly ventilated areas, she said.

Ogintz also pointed to schools in Mississippi and Georgia that closed almost immediately after they reopened. It is not feasible to teach outdoors, nor is it feasible to install windows in window-less spaces for ventilation, she said.

“The staff is afraid to go back,” Ogintz said.

Of the 515 East Windsor Education Association members who were polled, 425 said they were not comfortable returning to the classroom, she said. About 75% of the teachers are asking for the district to go to fully remote instruction.

Students rarely sit at their desks, Ogintz said. They learn better when they are moving around, and they likely won’t wear face masks.

Erin Servillo, the assistant superintendent for human resources, said 99 staff members were surveyed about their plans to return to the classroom, based on medical issues. Of those who were queried, 83 said they would not be able to return to the classroom, but many said they would be able to teach remotely, she said.

Wrapping up the meeting, school board President Ram Ramachandran said the re-entry plan is a good plan, but it may need to be tweaked.

Daniels agreed, and said the plan is a “working document. It is fluid.”