Throughout the state, there is a lot of discussion about what the new school year will look like. Our teachers and school staff want nothing more than to return to our classrooms. No matter what role we play in the school community, we entered this profession to help students grow and achieve academic excellence. As a union, we view ourselves and the roles we play in our schools as “The HEArt of the Community”, and our members take this very seriously.
As we debate returning to in-person instruction, there are critical decisions facing our community and varied perspectives – all of which have value. The desire to return to normalcy, the need to return to a regular work schedule and the need to maintain safety are not mutually exclusive. Where these concerns begin to diverge lies in what each of us defines as what constitutes “safe”. Despite the efforts of elected leaders and residents throughout New Jersey, the virus continues to increase its spread. At a time when we seek to limit indoor gatherings, restrict restaurant and other business access, and many colleges and companies are continuing to operate remotely, the state is considering sending hundreds of thousands of students and educators back into buildings to see what happens. To allow education professionals’, students’ and their families’ lives to be part of an experiment is simply unacceptable. That is why the Hillsborough Education Association (HEA) urges the district to begin the school year remotely.
To be clear, anyone advocating for a virtual opening isn’t doing so because they believe it to be better than the instruction delivered in our classrooms. Certainly, there is room for improvement. In fact, we believe that is what our district should have spent the summer months doing. Instead, countless hours and resources were devoted to determining what hallways can be one way, how many configurations a classroom layout could look while maintaining social distancing, and figuring out how to safely transport our students when we lack the resources to do it within the recommended CDC guidelines.
From the beginning, the HEA advocated for a common-sense plan based upon reality, not mandates and unclear interpretations of start dates. We pushed for measures to be established that put the health and well-being of our students and educators first, and we repeatedly emphasized the dangers of a rushed return to in-person instruction, as well as the wisdom of continuing virtual instruction until it’s safe. However, after participating in meetings and being asked for and offering input, our leadership was not shown the final plan prior to it being sent to the county for approval and much of what we conveyed was not present in the final hybrid plan.
In a recent interview, Dr. William Hanage, Harvard epidemiologist, detailed the epidemiological shortcomings of a hybrid approach as these plans generated a higher number of contacts and opportunities for students to carry the virus. With students’ chances of exposure increased, the likelihood of possible illness and community spread climbs. Hybrid plans also do little to offer the “normalcy” that so many are seeking. These approaches leave students largely stationary for hours of the day and working independently because papers cannot be passed out because teachers cannot come within six feet of their students and we must limit the chance of spread. As parents and educators, we know this will diametrically flip a students’ perspective on school and learning. Yet, this is the approach overwhelmingly favored by decision makers who will never set foot in our community’s schools.
Sadly, risk is not unknown in our profession. Educators train for active shooter drills and prepare to keep students safe from various threats. The difference now is that our members are being compelled to return to an environment with an unseen danger – one that can be brought home to potentially harm their families and their students’ families. We have been offered no training on how to effectively navigate this hazard, will be provided little PPE to safely do so and already are chronically short staffed due to the recent reduction of 56 positions.
We applaud the efforts of principals to provide some clarity to parents through Zoom Q&A sessions. Like the parents in our community, our members have many questions about the coming year. Our certificated and non-certificated staff have been given a loose outline of what the day will look like, but no real details on how the day will function. The expectations placed upon educators have yet to be clarified or communicated. The navigation of A/B schedules and how they should be planned has yet to be articulated. Similar to the guidance issued by the NJDOE, unclear and ambiguous directives leave our students, parents and members at a disadvantage when planning for the upcoming school year. Our members want nothing more than to ensure the success of the coming school year, but are finding it increasingly difficult to do so without clear answers.
Like you, we are frustrated. At the most recent Board of Education meeting, numerous community members submitted questions about reopening; few were answered. Now that the plan has been released, there is no attempt to schedule a special meeting to finally address the concerns of the community. Our members—and the parents within the community—have been compelled to make a binding decision for the coming school year without the benefit of having their questions fully answered or concerns addressed. That, too, is simply unacceptable.
For the last year, we have been out in the community advocating for what’s “Best for Boro” on all fronts, and we firmly believe a remote start to the year is what’s best right now. We understand that it won’t be easy, but it will make sure that our community doesn’t become another cautionary tale with needless additional lives lost.
Officers of the Hillsborough Education Association