Debate continues over school staff accommodation requests

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As the Princeton Public School District prepares to welcome more students back into the classroom, and more than two dozen staff members are being allowed to work from home, the debate over accommodations continued at the school board’s Oct. 13 meeting.

Interim Superintendent of Schools Barry Galasso told the school board that he had spoken to many students, parents and staff, and also read many letters regarding requests by staff for accommodations, such as permission to work from home, for fear of contracting COVID-19.

The district approved requests for 25 staff members to work from home based on supporting information from their physicians, Galasso said. He added that he was certain that the district would work with more staff members who request accommodations.

All staff members who make requests for accommodations would be treated with empathy, compassion and respect as the district meets its goal of providing both remote and hybrid instruction, Galasso said.

Meanwhile, elementary students and special education students have returned to the classroom in hybrid form. Princeton United Middle School students and Princeton High School students are expected to return to the classroom, also in hybrid form, on Oct. 26.

Hybrid instruction is a combination of in-person learning and remote learning. Small groups of students are brought into the classroom on different days of the week, splitting the number of days they will be in the building. On other days, they will learn remotely at home.

Some students have chosen to learn remotely at all times.

Galasso said the school district is required to provide a hybrid option for students under Gov. Phil Murphy’s re-opening plan. It is not an option for school districts to continue to teach all students remotely, as it had done since school opened last month.

The health and safety of students, faculty and staff is paramount and the school district has taken all the necessary measures to ensure their safety, Galasso said, but “COVID changes daily.”

“There are two things that are important to know. We will always be transparent about COVID-19 cases. Parents, faculty and staff will always be informed. We will go above and beyond the guidance provided by the Princeton Health Department,” he said.

Nevertheless, several teachers, students and parents weighed in on the issue of in-person instruction and accommodations for staff members.

Princeton High School social studies teacher Kim Groome said the conversations that have taken place over the last few months reminded her of the “social contract,” which holds that people are responsible to themselves and to each other.

Groome said she entered education to try to be a benefit to her students. She said she did not “undertake this job” thinking that she would be placing herself or her family at increased risk of contracting COVID-19.

“I encourage us all to understand that in asking us to return to what many of us feel is a significantly less safe situation. There is a responsibility that everyone has to wear a mask and engage in other health measures that are recommended,” Groome said.

Kristin Muenzen, whose son attends the Riverside School, said that while she appreciates that some children can learn remotely via Zoom, there are some children who cannot do so. There are significant numbers of children who “desperately” need in-person instruction, she said.

“While I appreciate a lot of the concerns, it is hugely important that the children who need to be in school are in school. Please keep in mind, there are students who can only learn in school,” Muenzen said.

Deb DiMeglio said her son could not learn in front of a computer. He is a special needs student and has regressed over the past six months for lack of services. It is “heartbreaking,” she said. Now that he has returned to school, he is doing better, she said.

“We just want you to see it from the other side, especially for children like my son that desperately need in-person instruction,” DiMeglio said. “It’s a lifesaver, especially for children that fall through the cracks. Their life matters, too. His life as a special needs child matters, whether COVID is here or not.”

But Sofia Datum, who is a Princeton High School sophomore, said it does not make sense to go back to in-person instruction. The students won’t be able to work and have the same school experience as they would have had, because of social distancing and the requirement to wear a facial mask.

“It won’t make all that much difference in learning. It will increase the risk for the teachers. I understand people who have special needs kids who can’t learn remotely,” Datum said, as she asked the school board to consider the teachers who claim they are risking their lives by going back into the classroom.