New Jersey public schools reopen despite concerns about health and safety from state teacher’s unions

By Sophia Solano

New Jersey public schools reopened in-person this month amidst challenges related to coronavirus after a summer of calls for virtual learning from the state’s teacher’s union.

Every school district was required to choose for itself what this school year would look like in terms of in-person, remote, or hybrid models of learning, but Governor Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Department of Education announced in August in an executive order that schools would be open for in-person instruction at the start of the school year. Only districts unable to adequately meet state health and safety guidelines were permitted to provide remote instruction to all students. 

This was a controversial decision regarded by teacher’s unions statewide as irresponsible. The New Jersey Education Association, the statewide teacher’s union, testified in July before the Assembly Education Committee.

“As we consider what school reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic looks like we should stop asking if we want brick and mortar schools to reopen,” said Christine Miles, associate director of professional development and instructional issues with NJEA. “Obviously, everyone wants schools to reopen as soon as possible. It’s not about dates; it’s about data. The true question we need to be asking and seeking answers to is ‘how, when, and under what conditions can schools open safely so as to not endanger the lives of our beloved students, their caregivers, and each community’s educators?’”

Despite this conflict, many schools did choose to reopen through in-person and hybrid models, including Morris County’s Roxbury school district. 

Eighty-six percent of 341 staff members in the district responded in a July survey by the Roxbury Education Association that they were prepared to return to school in September, but the majority of those respondents (nearly 50 percent) indicated that they said so because they interpreted responding “no” as a refusal to return to work; only 32 percent said they actually felt comfortable returning to work. 

“All of us want to teach as best as we can and all of us would agree that the best way to teach is in person,” said Michael McPhee, treasurer of the REA, in an interview. “Virtual instruction was not ideal. But under the conditions, a lot of people wish we could have prepared for a full virtual year and used the time over the summer to better prepare the virtual classroom.”

Though Roxbury Board of Education members recognize teacher concerns, they pushed reopening schools anyway.

“I can’t say how many teachers are completely comfortable in their classes versus how many are thinking in the back of their minds ‘I don’t know if I should be here,’” said Roxbury Board of Education Vice President Dan Masi in an interview. “From what I hear through the administration, teachers aren’t comfortable with what they see in the classrooms and how they feel the district has handled the health and sanitation aspect of this.”

In light of the rapid reopening of schools, teachers are finding some problems with receiving accommodations for teaching entirely virtually in school districts adhering to a hybrid model of learning. In the Roxbury school district, teachers could only receive permission to teach from home if they have a personal health condition that prohibits their return to in-person teaching. Those living with immunocompromised people were not eligible for the same accommodations, according to Masi. 

“There were definitely some people who felt forced to come back because of personal circumstances. There’s no requirement that an employer provide accommodations unless it’s your condition,” said McPhee in an interview.

Nineteen teachers were given accommodations to teach virtually, but there were some who were required to take an unpaid leave of absence to protect their family members especially susceptible to the virus, according to Masi.

Teachers also have concerns about classroom sanitation. Roxbury teachers are required to sanitize their own classrooms with air purifiers and disinfectant spray provided by the district, but some teachers do not think it is enough, according to McPhee, who started a personal GoFundMe page that raised almost $1000 for air purifiers, face masks and sanitizing wipes.

“I don’t think that the administration necessarily went above and beyond in health and safety measures,” said McPhee in an interview. 

Some teachers are also concerned about contact tracing and the process by which community members are notified that they may have had contact with an infected person, said McPhee. 

“We’ve had exposures at the high school, elementary, and middle school. If I was exposed, I would have been contacted privately. In some respects it feels like information is being hidden but in reality it’s because of the laws. We want to know what’s going on and that the decisions being made are totally objective,” said McPhee. 

Kate Zenna, a nurse at Jefferson Elementary School in Succasunna, New Jersey, said in an interview that contact tracing has been made difficult because of laws preventing the spread of personal medical information.

“You worry about somebody getting sick,” said Zenna. “It’s already difficult on teachers and if somebody in our community does become ill, that’s going to be an emotional hit. We want the kids to be safe and we want the staff to be safe, so you worry about your students or someone you work with falling ill and how upsetting that would be. You want the kids to be there but you want them to be there safely.”

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