Hillsborough Education Association aiming to resolve staffing problems in school district

STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF

Staffing issues have come about in the Hillsborough Township Public Schools.

According to Hillsborough Education Association (HEA) President Henry Goodhue, there has been a 44% increase of teachers retiring or resigning from their positions in the school district over the last year.

Goodhue said there are different reasons for staff departing, but states issues surrounding COVID-19 and the way the school district has handled bringing staff and students back into the schools “exacerbated” the situation.

Before the school district began its hybrid model in September, the HEA posted a statement on its Facebook page that referenced concerns teachers had of working in an unsafe work environment due to construction work still being done around certain schools for the referendum project.

Other issues included teachers not having the choice to only teach virtually due to safety and health concerns surrounding COVID-19. Goodhue said teachers were denied any virtual-only accommodations and have had to participate in the hybrid model since it began.

All of this comes on the heels of budget cuts over a year ago that eliminated 56 positions in the school district, he said.

“Safety is of utmost importance,” Goodhue said. “We have expressed our concerns with the hybrid model since the start of the school year. Being safe is what everyone wants.”

The HEA members have voiced their concerns on the staffing shortage in the district to the Hillsborough Township Board of Education (HBOE) for more than a year, he said.

“We will continue to push for more qualified people to be put in the classroom for the students,” Goodhue said.

Michael Callahan, director of Human Resources for the school district, said staff members who have chosen to retire during this time may have done so for a variety of reasons, which may or may not include their individual comfort level about providing in-person instruction during this time.

“The district does not keep statistics on the reasons that employees provide when they retire — if they even do so — or make judgments about why an individual chooses to make that personal decision,” he said.

Goodhue added that the HEA is hoping to create a more open dialogue with the members of the board in 2021.

The HBOE ushered in new members Cindy Nurse and Paul Marini last week. Jean Trujillo was elected president of the school board, while Jane Staats was appointed vice president of the board.

Nurse is an educator in the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District, while Marini has served as treasurer of the Hillsborough Elementary Home and School Association.

Both members were endorsed by the HEA in November’s election and Goodhue believes that collaboration between the new board and the association is possible.

“Having open dialogue will help meet the needs of both the staff and students,” he said.

Hillsborough resumed its hybrid model on Jan. 11 after the school district went fully virtual during the first week of the New Year to combat any sort of fallout of possible COVID-19 cases from the holiday break.

The school district was shut down for two weeks at the end of November due to a rise of COVID-19 cases in the area and in the state.

Goodhue said everyone is still waiting to see the full impact of the holiday season and it has raised concerns with HEA members.

Callahan said the Hillsborough Township Public School District utilized the advice given and resources provided by the New Jersey Department of Education, the New Jersey Department of Health, the Hillsborough Township Department of Health, and its school physician, among others, to develop its plan to reopen the school district for in-person instruction on a hybrid schedule.

“When school districts were faced with these issues in late August, the state made it clear that each school district was required to reopen for in-person instruction in some fashion unless a district certified that it could not meet the safety standards set forth in the state’s The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education. The district is in full compliance with the requirements set forth in that document, and has adjusted accordingly where necessary as the COVID-19 situation has evolved. It therefore believes that in-person instruction is safe and appropriate for both students and staff. Moreover, the district has addressed, and will continue to address, any related issues that arise that might necessitate a temporary closure of a particular school or the district, or any other safety-related working conditions,” he said.

Through all the chaos that has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic this school year, Goodhue said he and his fellow teachers want things to get to a “new normal” where they can safely teach their students in person.

Goodhue said it has been “taxing” for both students and teachers dealing with the restrictions of both the hybrid model and virtual learning.

“Teachers want to be in their classrooms and get things back to normal,” Goodhue said. “We strive for interaction with our students and being in school to teach them. We just want to be ensured that our safety is in place to do so.”

Callahan said with respect to concerns regarding the mental and emotional well-being of staff, “the district has afforded high levels of consideration and administrative support to the staff throughout the school year and will continue to do so.

“The district started the year with three weeks of virtual instruction, giving staff the opportunity to adapt to the new norms, gave flexibility to staff members with childcare needs, and provided accommodations and considerations for staff members with medical needs as necessary and appropriate. It will continue to provide necessary support on a case-by-case as-needed basis,” he said.