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Opinion: ‘Minimum standards’ not achieved during first week of school in Hillsborough

Pictures from Hillsborough schools during the first week of school

As the opening week of Hillsborough’s schools comes to an end, we again find ourselves in the regrettable position of having to address continual basic safety concerns and the ongoing misrepresentations of Dr. Lisa Antunes and the Board of Education. As we face the daunting task of trying to safely reopen schools, a goal that our members remain firmly committed to, it’s clear that neither the administration nor the board have any interest in honest conversation and full transparency. We’d like to set the record straight.

In her message to the community, Dr. Antunes claimed that, “Hillsborough Township Public Schools has met or exceeded the minimum standards required as outlined by the New Jersey Department of Education’s The Road Back Plan.” 

That claim is categorically false. Here’s why:

Minimum NJDOE standard: Ensure that indoor facilities have adequate ventilation by: maintaining operational heating and ventilation systems where appropriate; ensuring that recirculated air has a fresh air component; opening windows if A/C is not provided; and maintaining filters for A/C units according to manufacturer recommendations.

In her reopening message to staff, Dr. Antunes admitted that exhaust fans were not functioning properly in our schools and air was not being circulated. She went on to say that the district was “in the process” of procuring air purifiers because the ventilation was not at the minimum threshold required by the NJDOE. Mounting research has held that the air in classrooms should be replaced with clean air four to six times per hour. How can this be done with poorly functioning or broken exhaust fans?   

Dr. Antunes sought to further comfort the community by stating that a high percentage of preventative maintenance and filter changes have been completed, yet she failed to mention that this preventative maintenance was already required under PEOSH Indoor Air Quality guidelines and does not address the increased demands to stave off the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) both recommend the use of MERV 13 (or higher) filters to offer greater protection. The filters touted by Dr. Antunes are in many instances the standard ones with MERV ratings of 7-8, that, at most, filter out particles like mold and dust, but offer no increased protection. In instances where this cannot be done due to the age of the unit, it is recommended to install UV filters as a secondary level of protection. This has not occurred.

Multiple classrooms, or even sections of buildings, had broken ventilation systems. Yet, we were assured by Dr. Antunes in her opening message that nearly 100% of the units had been checked, cleaned and serviced.

Additionally, it must be noted that the district still refuses to respond to the HEA’s OPRA requests for HVAC information, including unit performance reports and filter ratings. A list of items without proper context or further explanation does nothing to provide proof that minimum standards are being met.

Minimum NJDOE standard: Ensure that hand sanitizing stations are maintained with alcohol-based hand sanitizers in each classroom, at entrances and exits of buildings, and near lunchrooms and bathrooms.

By early morning on reopening day, it became clear that most buildings did not have hand sanitizer in the sanitizing stations or in classrooms. When members requested these supplies, as were promised to be in place in the HTPS reopening plan, they were told that it was unknown when it would arrive. So, while the district may have installed hand sanitizing stations, it has neglected to fill many of them, and none of the stations required to be present in each classroom were in place.

Minimum NJDOE standard: Require students, staff and visitors to wear face coverings unless doing so would inhibit the individual’s health, the individual is under two years of age, or other exceptions outlined in NJDOE’s guidance apply, while providing any necessary accommodations for young students or students with disabilities.

In Dr. Antunes’s message to the community, she stated that 23,000 adult sized surgical masks have been ordered. The question is, for whom? On opening day, staff asked if the masks were going to be distributed to them, but were denied. Unlike other surrounding districts, Dr. Antunes and the board have repeatedly stated that they will not provide even the most minimal levels of PPE to most staff because it was “cost prohibitive.” At the Aug. 24 board meeting, Board President Lorraine Soisson stated, “… with regard to the PPE what I stated is true that you know from my perspective $2 is not something that we should be trying to provide a mask to every staff member … I don’t feel compelled.”

Minimum NJDOE standard: Provide reasonable accommodations for students and staff identified as having a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, including older adults and individuals with disabilities or serious underlying medical conditions.

Faced with the unforeseen threat presented by the pandemic and its effect on their health or the health of their high-risk family members, some of our members sought appropriate medical accommodations under ADA regulations.

Disregarding the law and our members’ rights, the district administration responded to these members by obscuring the application process, delaying responses and largely denying the majority of requests, despite the fact that they were accompanied by the appropriate medical documentation. To be clear, our members were requesting to continue educating, to continue providing the excellent education our district is known for, and sought the legally-available accommodations to do so. The staffing impact of the district’s callous denials have yet to be fully seen and will undoubtedly extend beyond September.

Minimum NJDOE standard: Develop a procedure manual to establish schedules for increased cleaning and disinfection; targeted areas to be cleaned, including frequently touched surfaces and objects and frequent sanitization of bathrooms; and methods and materials to be used.

The Custodial and Buildings and Grounds members of the HEA have worked tirelessly to address our members’ concerns and provide the greatest degree of safety possible. Despite these incredible efforts, the district has not provided adequate supplies, training, a manual or even clarified what a “deep clean” procedure will entail. What board leadership has repeatedly done is decrease their numbers and make it even more difficult for these dedicated professionals to keep our students and staff safe.

Minimum NJDOE standard: Incorporate a contact tracing policy in consultation with the local health department and its school nurses.

Our district is currently seeking to fill close to 50% of the district’s nursing positions. These critical professionals are often finding themselves split between multiple buildings and short supplied. Without adequate levels of permanent school nurses, appropriately equipped and monitored offices and COVID isolation rooms, how can the district assert that they are prepared to keep students and staff safe?

In our recent Facebook Live message to the community, the HEA presented a list of requests to safely begin the school year. These concerns remain largely ignored by Dr. Antunes and Board leadership, who seem to be more willing to obfuscate than cooperate. Our members want nothing more than to return to their classrooms and welcome students back to our schools, but we refuse to be shortchanged of our rights and watch our health and safety or our students’ be compromised. But don’t just take our word for it: We believe that a picture is worth a thousand words.

“Minimum standards” for HVAC  that greeted staff on Sept. 1.

“Minimum standards” mean staff found mold in various locations on opening day.

“Minimum standards” result in ceiling tiles collapsing as roofs leaked.

“Minimum standards” leave no room for social distancing in classrooms.

“Minimum standards” ensure that the most basic aspects of Hillsborough’s reopening plan, like directional arrows, signage and hand sanitizer stations are missing from many hallways on opening day.

“Minimum standards” allow water to leak into a coffee can and run across the floor.

It’s clear that our district’s reopening plan is not what’s “Best for Boro.” In fact, we question whether Dr. Antunes and the board leadership is what’s best for us, too. 

We urge the community to email Dr. Antunes at lantunes@htps.us and the Board of Education at boe@htps.us and tell them that health and safety issues should never be labor-management issues. Urge them to stand with their staff, seek more than “minimum standards” and get this right, so we can all return to school safely as soon as possible. After all, when it comes to matters of life or death, there is no room for error.

Henry Goodhue
Hillsborough Education Association

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