Citing concerns about student and faculty health, chaotic hybrid schedules, and poor guidance from the state, teachers from the Morris School District have joined peers from across Morris County to demand that officials scrap September’s reopenings and continue with remote learning.
“We all want to get back to our classrooms and get back to normal with all the lessons, activities, field trips, and rites of passage. But let’s be honest, there are too many remaining unanswered questions about the risks of reopening,” Laurie Schorno, president of the Morris County Council of Education Associations Inc. (MCCEA), said Friday in a letter to Angelica Allen-McMillan, Morris County’s interim executive county superintendent.
“We cannot guarantee the safety of our students, staff or the communities we serve therefore, districts must plan for virtual openings in September,” as the County College of Morris and Willingboro public schools in Burlington County have done, wrote Schorno, whose Randolph organization represents more than 10,000 employees in 41 school districts.
Allen-McMillan could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The four-page letter was copied to Gov. Phil Murphy, state education and health officials, Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, state lawmakers from Morris County, and members of key legislative committees in Trenton.
It was signed by teacher representatives from 29 school districts, including the Morris Plains Education Association, and Deirdre Falk and Bill Cole of The Education Association of Morris.
TEAM represents educators in the Morris School District, serving students from Morristown, Morris Township and (for high school) Morris Plains.
“I think we’re going to let the statement speak for itself,” Cole told Morristown Green on Friday.
Morris School District Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast, who on Saturday issued the district’s blueprint for reopening, later commented:
“Our faculty and staff have been extremely engaged and committed throughout this entire public health crisis. They have been valuable collaborative partners this summer, providing important feedback as we prepare for September. They are an incredibly dedicated and professional staff. The Morris County Education Association’s letter raises important safety concerns which is part of a larger national dialogue.”
The reopening for the regional district’s 5,200 students has been pushed back several days, to Sept. 8, 2020. Pendergrast and his staff have spent the summer preparing multiple scenarios, settling for now on in-school K-5 classes and a mix of classroom and virtual instruction for grades 6-12.
Echoing issues being raised by teachers statewide and across the country, Schorno’s letter warns that alternating class time with virtual lessons will cause more problems than it solves.
Young students are likely to struggle with masks, especially during late summer in hot, poorly ventilated buildings, jeopardizing both safety and academic focus, Schorno’s letter contends. Social distancing also will be hard to maintain, and will hinder learning, she predicted.
“Most plans have reported that students will not be allowed to work in groups or share materials. They will not be permitted to work closely or in groups, assist each other or console a friend. As educators, we know that these provisions are against everything we know about best practices. Furthermore, it may be rather distressing for students to witness a friend in crisis and be told they may not help.
“Children naturally gravitate toward each other and toward caring adults. Can they be expected to adhere to their six-foot ‘safe place’ at all times? How hurtful will it be to tell a child they cannot hold their best friend’s hand or deny them the reassuring hug they may need? This is not education,” the letter asserts.
Sanitizing classrooms will pose risks for janitors, and for students forced to congregate in narrow hallways during the cleanings.
COVID-19 fears are heightened, Schorno said, by spikes in states such as Florida, Texas and Arizona, which eased precautions, and in “safe” states such as Delaware and Maryland.
She also noted cases linked to “safe” outdoor camps and sports in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and in pro sports, and questioned whether beach-going families may bring the coronavirus back to Morris County and force another shutdown of schools. The governor has blamed outbreaks on partygoers at the Shore who have ignored safety advice from health authorities.
TEACHERS DEMONSTRATE, LAWMAKERS SPONSOR MEASURE
Despite a surge of coronavirus cases across the country, President Trump has threatened to cut federal school aid if districts don’t open their doors.
Gov. Murphy, who closed schools on March 18, has insisted some classroom instruction is necessary. He’s left the details to New Jersey’s 577 school districts, while saying families should have the option of sticking with remote learning.
The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has expressed doubts that all schools will be COVID-safe for children and staff this fall. Dozens of teachers from across the state demonstrated in Somerville on Thursday, demanding a virtual school year.
A bill introduced in the state Assembly last week would delay in-school classes until at least Oct. 31.
State residents are split. A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll last month found 46 percent of respondents think schools should reopen with appropriate protective measures, while 42 percent favored remote learning until a COVID-19 treatment or vaccine is available.
It might be moot: Districts may not have enough staff to re-open, if teachers opt for early retirements or stay home for health reasons during the pandemic, according to the NJEA.
Citing health concerns, a popular broadcasting teacher at Morristown High School retired last month; Morris School District administrators anxiously are watching to see if other teachers do the same.
Patchwork schedules–a few days in class, a few days online–could force teachers to choose between family and work, said Schorno, a math teacher at the Borough School in Morris Plains and mother of five.
“The absence of a comprehensive, unified reopening procedure has left many without care for their own children and may lead to a teacher shortage come September,” she wrote, declaring that MCCEA members lack confidence in the state Department of Education’s guidance.
Hybrid schedules aim to enhance social distancing by reducing class sizes. But live-streaming class instruction to kids at home– something the Morris School District envisions–may violate students’ rights and board policies, Schorno added.
Hit hard by the early stages of the pandemic, New Jersey finally appeared to be heading toward economic recovery when the Governor hit the brakes last month.
Although the numbers of infections and deaths are dramatically lower than April’s peak, Murphy has blamed new outbreaks on house parties and Shore gatherings, as the state’s transmission rate on Friday inched above 1.
That key indicator means each infected individual is infecting at least one other person.
Since March, New Jersey has seen 182,029 coronavirus infections, with 13,944 confirmed deaths and another 1,875 probably caused by the virus. Morris County has had 7,144 positive tests, 678 confirmed deaths and 151 probable deaths.
Fatalities by town have not been released. Morristown has had 608 positive tests; Morris Township, 326; and Morris Plains, 76.
Globally, 17.7 million coronavirus cases have been reported, with 680,575 deaths.
Some 153,642 of those fatalities occurred in the United States, where 4.6 million infections have been confirmed. Next is Brazil, with 92,475 deaths, followed by Mexico, with 46,668, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Florida, Texas, Arizona and California are among states experiencing summer surges.
This story has been updated to include comments from the Morris School District superintendent.