SUMMIT, NJ — After revealing details of its school reopening plan last month (see them here), the Summit public schools planned to post the final plan on the district’s website (here) on Tuesday and host a forum remotely this Thursday.
But Summit’s teachers’ union, like certain other teachers’ unions locally and around the state, was concerned about aspects of returning to school in light of the coronavirus pandemic, asked about ventilation in the buildings, and more. They submitted a letter to the school board that’s posted below.
Last month, the district said it would allow students the option of either attending five days per week, single session with no lunch, or being all remote (the state has said that every district must offer an all-remote option).
This Thursday at 7 p.m., the district will host a “community forum regarding the district’s reopening plan.” Details of how to access it (via a Zoom link) will be posted on the school district website.
This week, the Summit Education Association sent this letter to the school board:
An open letter to the Summit Board of Education:
On behalf of the staff of the Summit Public Schools we would like to share our concerns about the start of the 2020-2021 school year. As much as we want to return to our students and classrooms, the members of the Summit Education Association need assurances that it will be safe to enter our school buildings. We need a plan that will protect our students, their families, and the staff. Neighboring towns, such as Westfield and Millburn, are doing more to reduce class sizes and provide time to sanitize. Summit needs to acknowledge that there is a pandemic and we must adapt our practices.
The district’s concerns about academic rigor seem to override their responsibilities to protect the students and staff. Board meetings are being held online and central office staff are working remotely. Are the buildings truly safe for our students and staff?
Our chief concern is that the lack of reasonable spacing and ventilation endangers our students and the staff. As many parents know from back to school nights, classroom spaces are tight and hallways are crowded. The district communications state that as long as everyone is wearing a mask, guidelines about minimum spacing are irrelevant. Yet, the State of New Jersey’s school re-opening guidelines clearly state that “Face coverings/masks do not replace social distancing.”
The Summit Education Association would like more details about updates to building ventilation. We’ve been informed that MERV filters have been updated, which is good news. What is being done for the large number of classrooms and offices that lack air-conditioning? It is already a struggle for students to learn when the room temperature is well over 85 degrees. What will happen when wearing a mask adds to that discomfort? In hot fall weather teachers often have to choose between keeping fans on and hearing students speak. Wearing masks will only add to this challenge.
Sanitation is another important concern. Some elementary classrooms have bathrooms, but how will these be cleaned during the school day? How will custodians clean classrooms if staff are required to remain in the afternoon?
Other districts are allowing staff to teach from home if they are in documented high risk groups. Summit needs to commit to this accommodation immediately. One science teacher has already decided to retire due to health concerns. Others are considering retiring or taking medical leave. It is less disruptive to our students to allow at risk staff to teach from home then to replace staff who retire, take leave, or resign to protect their health.
Given the current trends it is highly probable that at some point we will resume online instruction for all students. It would make more sense to focus our energies on improving our skills so that our students receive the best possible online education.
In addition, the current schedule shows a lack of trust in our professionalism. Why is the district forcing teachers to remain in the building after students depart? According to the board’s own communications, we did an excellent job with online instruction. The board office has refused to allow staff to leave pick up their own children, even though there is an hour between dismissal and the start of online instruction, Staying in the building poses a serious danger to the health of the staff. It also prevents the custodians from properly sanitizing classrooms.
The board is forcing staff whose health conditions fit the CDC definition of “high-risk” to come into the buildings. Since there are teachers in high risk categories who should only work from home, wouldn’t it make more sense for those staff members to teach the online classes? This would also allow teachers in the building to focus on more innovative lessons instead of lectures that will also be livestreamed to students at home.
We miss our students and we want to return to our classrooms. We cannot return if the buildings do not meet the highest standards for health and safety. This current plan is irresponsible and will risk the safety of our students, their families, and the staff. As dedicated educators who care deeply about our students, we cannot jeopardize their health or ours.
The Summit Education Association
Behind Summit’s plan
Acting Schools Superintendent Robert Gardella said last month that the “blended” plans chosen by nearby districts, in which students alternate in-school and remote learning each day, could present a problem, and added that Summit parent surveys revealed that 87 percent of respondents wanted children in the buildings.
“While there is no perfect model,” he wrote, “we believe that this is the best for our students academically, emotionally, socially, and behaviorally. … An A-B model means that students are not in school on alternating, full days. This fact raised questions in our district: Where are students on their remote only days? Who are they with? Are they gathering? Are they distancing? Are they wearing masks? Are they supervised? Are they receiving health screenings?”
Summit schools were originally supposed to reopen on Aug. 31 (as per the calendar), but now will reopen Sept. 1 for students.
Young people, New Jersey, and coronavirus
The rate of recent coronavirus cases in Summit has remained low, but statewide, the transmission rate is starting to climb with reopenings, including among young people. On Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy cracked down on indoor gatherings, reducing the limit to 25 people.
While most children in the United States have avoided severe symptoms from the virus, a large-scale study in South Korea, quoted widely last week in American media outlets from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal, suggested that teens spread the virus at the same rate as adults, and more easily than younger children.
The CDC also confirmed a large outbreak at a camp in Georgia in a press conference Friday.
Some teachers’ unions, including in Essex County, and the state teachers’ union, have said they believe learning should stay remote for now. But working parents, parents of special needs children, and others have argued that they need aspects of on-site learning.
Around the state, school districts have been announcing a variety of options. One New Jersey district, Old Bridge, offered a choice of in-person learning only four hours per week and the rest remote, or all remote. Hoboken offered a choice of either full-day in-person learning or full-day remote. Cranford and Millburn have offered blended plans, with single-session days and a remote component.
Last Thursday, the number of cases in New Jersey since early March climbed to 180,970, with 13,934 confirmed deaths. Thursday’s number included 261 cases confirmed since the day before, and 19 more confirmed deaths. Read more: Gov. Murphy Warns That NJ’s Coronavirus Cases Are Rising Again
But the current daily death rate is well down from New Jersey’s peak: a high of 460 deaths in 24 hours on April 30, or one person every three minutes.
Other states around the country have had to pull back on their reopenings, including Texas, which is seeing a record number of hospitalizations and deaths. See the daily increases in each state here.
Last month, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered residents to wear masks. He also has asked for residents to quarantine after coming from 34 states that are seeing spikes.
Murphy’s administration released its broad school reopening guidelines to the districts late last month.
To find out about getting tested in Union County, contact your doctor, visit covid19.nj.gov/testing, or call 211.
If you’re a Union County resident, you can make an appointment at the testing site by calling 908-214-7107.
The schedule for the Union County drive-through testing center has changed several times. Call to get the most accurate information.
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This article originally appeared on the Summit Patch