Education Association Presidents Representing More than 12,000 Educators in South Jersey Publish Open Letter to Gov. Murphy Regarding Back-to-School Concerns

By: Michael Mandarino / Follow South Jersey Assignment Editor

Photo: Jon Bradley | Follow South Jersey

BRIDGETON, N.J. — The presidents of Cumberland County’s Council of Education Associations wrote a joint letter to New Jersey’s education leaders expressing their concerns about reopening schools for the 2020-21 academic year.

Mildred Johnson, Susan Clark, and Susan Maniglia — the presidents of the Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem County councils of education associations, respectively — co-signed the letter, which outlines a number of safety concerns for both teachers and students as the 2020-21 academic year approaches.

“For the last several weeks our members have been faithfully participating in the reopening committees in our districts,” the letter reads. “We would like nothing more than to return to our classrooms, busses, cafeterias,  and offices to educate our students in a safe environment. However, it is clear that the science does not support reopening school buildings this fall.”

The letter cites several different sources detailing the risks of COVID-19. Holding indoor activities in smaller spaces is widely accepted to pose the highest risk for spreading the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 160,000 Americans as of August 10. In addition to some of the more commonly-known facts about how COVID-19 spreads, the letter also cites a recent study from Korea that suggests children’s ability to contract and spread the virus.

Bridgeton’s public school district will enforce mandatory mask wearing and social distancing as part of its reopening plan, which is a three-phase, hybrid-learning plan that will begin by only allowing the school to fill up to 25% capacity on any given day. However, the letter expresses concern about whether or not children will comply with these new rules.

“Small children are not developmentally able to understand or undertake social distancing,” it reads. “It will be an impossible task to keep them apart. As educators, we are problem solvers and inherently optimistic. But this is not a challenge to be overcome, it is an impossibility. If we open buildings for in-person instruction, make no mistake, students will not maintain social distance in spite of the heroic effort made by educators to ensure that occurs and the results may be deadly.”

You can read the letter in its entirety below:

TO: Governor Phil Murphy, Acting Commissioner of Education, Kevin Dehmer, Senator Stephen Sweeney, Assemblyman John Burzichelli, Assemblyman Adam Taliafferro, Interim Executive County Superintendents Ave’Altersitz, Leslie White-Coursey, Peggy Nicolosi

As the Presidents of the Cumberland County Council of Education Associations, the Gloucester County Education Association, and the Salem County Council of Education Associations, we represent more than twelve thousand educators across the counties and for us, the danger that Covid-19 presents is all too real. 

For the last several weeks our members have been faithfully participating in the reopening committees in our districts. We would like nothing more than to return to our classrooms, busses, cafeterias,  and offices to educate our students in a safe environment. However, it is clear that the science does not support reopening school buildings this fall.

Here is just a short version of what the science says:

  • Indoor activities in small spaces for long periods of time presents the highest risk for the spread of Covid-19. Currently, the NJ Department of Health acknowledges that short term, indoor dining is not safe. Why would being in a confined classroom be any different?
  • The World Health Organization now agrees that Covid-19 may spread through the air in indoor enclosed spaces. 
  • Just this week it was reported that scientists also believe that Covid-19 may be spread by HVAC units. Enclosed spaces and long periods of time describe the exact conditions in our classrooms, and not all buildings within our counties have adequate HVAC systems to begin with.
  • A recent study from Korea suggests that children CAN contract and spread the virus

There are countless other health and safety issues that are equally daunting, including busing and Covid testing and tracing and they come during a time when we are facing budget shortfalls and no guarantee of assistance from the Federal Government. 

The other huge issue that makes resuming in-person instruction unsafe is compliance. Small children are not developmentally able to understand or undertake social distancing. It will be an impossible task to keep them apart. As educators, we are problem solvers and inherently optimistic. But this is not a challenge to be overcome, it is an impossibility. If we open buildings for in-person instruction, make no mistake, students will not maintain social distance in spite of the heroic effort made by educators to ensure that occurs and the results may be deadly. For some of our students, compliance with rules is often difficult. Therefore, regardless of age level, the maintenance of safety protocols is utterly unrealistic. 

Additionally, the uneven response from school districts regarding mask wearing poses another huge issue. Some districts are mandating door-to-door wearing, while others are saying as long as social distancing is followed, masks are not necessary.  (See above paragraph for problems with that issue). 

The guidelines from both the NJDOE and the AAP are simply that, guidelines. They are unproven and untested. They cannot assure parents that their children are safe from contracting the virus or bringing it home. The guidelines cannot guarantee that teachers will not get sick and die. In a large-scale, systematic study of 65,000 people in South Korea, results found students between ages 10 and 19 spread the virus at the same rate as adults. What are the implications for our middle and high school students, their families, and educators? We have already seen camps and summer schools with small groups, who followed social distancing guidelines and mask requirements, report cases of Covid 19 and close, some within a few days of opening. (see reference page for specific case studies) And now, the Major League Baseball teams, who have practically unlimited resources and have placed very strict procedures in place, are finding a spike in cases within less than a week of opening their season! 

We understand that parents want to resume a sense of normalcy for their children. We want that too. But we all need to understand the new realities of classrooms in the age of Covid. We can attest that educators have spent the last decade engaged in an effort to emphasize the social and emotional development of our students. Simply put, we understand now more than ever that for students to learn they must feel safe, welcome, and part of the community. How exactly will they do that with desks spaced 6 ft apart? How will they feel as they are constantly reminded to stay apart from their friends, and to not touch their masks, and to not share supplies and keep to their plexiglass “personal space” in the classroom? How will that work exactly, with kindergarteners?  One to one help will be restricted under the guidelines. Group work and labs with shared supplies will not occur. The simple gesture of a reassuring smile or fist bump will vanish. The school day may be abbreviated with students either eating lunch at home, getting a boxed lunch to take home, or eating in their classroom. Going to the bathroom will now require the careful orchestration and logistics of an air traffic controller at Philadelphia Airport. Precious instructional time will be lost to monitor sanitizing and compliance to social distancing and mask wearing. Socially and emotionally, every single person–both students and adults–present in these buildings under these conditions will be totally stressed out all the time. Yet, even with all these draconian measures, there is still no guarantee that students will be safe from Covid-19. 

We recognize the severe burden that closed school buildings presents for working families and we did not arrive at this decision to support a remote start lightly. Many teachers are working parents too. However, an intermittent start and stop due to an outbreak of new cases is far more disruptive and unstable than planning now for remote learning for all families. While some European schools have opened with limited transmission, schools in China, Israel and South Korea have been forced to close. 

By declaring a remote start for school in September now, this will provide parents time to arrange for childcare and educators to better prepare for remote instruction. Time is of the essence. Districts are wasting precious weeks creating plans with convoluted schedules and Plexiglas dividers that are plainly unworkable. Staffing these plans will prove to be impossible. We had a severe substitute shortage before the pandemic. Many educators are preparing to leave the profession rather than risk their lives in buildings that they know cannot be made safe over the next six weeks. 

Ultimately, once cases of Covid start showing up–and they will–these plans fall apart like a house of cards. Where do districts, families and students end up in that case? Right back in remote learning anyway, but without the benefit of planning and preparation because we were too busy figuring out who is going to be taking temperatures and sanitizing every surface each day. 

Educators can use the remaining weeks before school to engage in professional development in effective remote instruction. Administrators can work to provide technology support for those families in need. Districts can focus on public/private partnerships and other funding sources to help their students as outlined by Governor Murphy’s initiative, “Closing the Digital Divide.” Districts that had successes with remote learning could share best practices with districts that struggled. As always, our members stand ready to work with the communities we serve to help reduce the burden of remote instruction. We are interested in creative ideas that can help working families and support students, but do not put lives at risk. 

We understand the myriad challenges facing all of us involved – the parents, the administrators, the legislators, the students, the educators— and we stand firmly behind the science that says we must support the obvious: it is totally unrealistic to expect that we can safely open our schools for in-person instruction in September.  And so, the bottom line is—  can you assure us that returning to our busses, classrooms, cafeteria’s, offices and hallways is truly in the best interest for all of us involved in education?   Are you willing to risk your constituents and their children by reopening schools in September??  Please consider an in-person return date that will ensure the health and safety for EVERYONE involved!  

We are simply asking that as leaders you take the next step and support a remote start to the year so that during this unprecedented crisis we can continue to deliver the best quality education that made NJ schools the best in the nation. 

Respectfully,
Mildred Johnson, President, Cumberland County Council of Ed. Assoc.
Susan Clark, President, Gloucester County Ed. Assn.
Susan Maniglia, President, Salem County Council of Ed. Assn.


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