SUMMIT, NJ — Following the Summit school district’s release of a final reopening plan and health/safety plan two weeks ago, the local teachers union — like some other unions around the state — has issued a new letter citing health and safety concerns about reopening schools.
Summit schools were originally set to reopen to students Aug. 31 but will now reopen Sept. 1.
Right now, all New Jersey districts must offer a remote plan for students returning to school. In addition, many — including Summit — have also offered a blended or hybrid plan in which students are in the buildings for single-session days (without lunch) and home at other times.
Summit’s plan allows children to be in the building five days a week rather than alternating days, like some nearby districts. Acting Superintendent Robert Gardella explained in July why he thought that was better for health and sanitation.
The state said last week that schools that cannot meet certain health requirements do not have to open their buildings at the beginning of the year. This is the new state document: NJ DOH COVID Recommendations for Schools.pdf.
The Summit Education Association released a letter last month citing concerns. On Monday, it issued a new communication.
Here is the SEA’s new letter:
From the Summit Education Association:
We are eager to return to our classrooms and see our students, but not at the expense of our own health and that of our students and their families. As evidence of our dedication to our students, over 150 teachers volunteered their time to help create what we hoped would be a safe and practical plan.
We provided hundreds of hours of free labor, a fact that has been acknowledged by the Mayor, but has not been adequately publicly acknowledged by district leadership. Some Board members mistakenly believe that this means these volunteers are not among the 89 percent of Summit staff who do not support the existing plan. Many staff members want it to be known that they served on volunteer committees, but they do not endorse the current 5-day plan.
Many members of the Summit Education Association watched the Aug. 13 Board meeting and we understand that members of the board care about the health and safety of our students. We also understand that the guidelines for safely opening schools are constantly changing. None of us want to be in this situation.
At the Board of School Estimate meeting, Councilman Naidu compared teachers to grocery store workers and truckers. Like those groups, we are underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated. Unlike these workers, teachers can work online without disrupting key supply chains.
The SEA would like the Summit community to understand that we want evidence that every classroom, office, and bathroom is safe before staff enter their buildings on August 27. The board is meeting minimum guidelines for physical distance and ventilation, instead of striving for maximum safety.
The latest NJ Department of Health guidelines state that students should remain at least 6 feet apart to lower the risk of transmission. Additionally, the guidelines state that “face coverings are not a substitute for social distancing.” The current plan cannot guarantee even 3 feet in many classrooms. (Source: NJ DOH)
We reiterate that the plan for reopening does not sufficiently address the following areas of the State’s requirements, and respectfully request that each of these be addressed specifically and thoroughly in the board’s response:
What is being done to “ensure that other instructional and non-instructional rooms comply with social distancing standards to the greatest extent practicable?” There may be a legal “air exchanger” in every room, but to people actually in the room there is often no discernable air flow. Will there be portable air purifiers in bathrooms and other enclosed spaces?
Is there evidence of reasonable accommodations for staff “identified as having a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, including older adults and individuals with disabilities or serious underlying medical conditions”?
If students are not seated at least six feet apart within a classroom then modifications should include “the use of physical barriers between desks and turning desks to face the same direction or having students sit on only one side of the table, spaced apart.”
The district posted videos showing how desks would be distanced in several buildings. While the desks may look somewhat spaced out in these featured rooms, there are many classrooms — smaller than those shown — that would house the same number of students. Unless we have an A/B schedule there will be too many students to space sufficiently; for example, at SHS the number of students in health and drivers’ education classes range from 25 to 36. There are no classrooms that would allow for safely spacing out that many desks.
We have been informed multiple times that the district’s preparations “meet the guidelines.” That is insufficient. According to federal guidelines, an airline can place you in a middle seat with people on either side of you. Would any of us want our children to be in that position 5 days a week for several hours at a time?
Source: DOE Re-Opening checklist
The SEA has done what the district has not — we have asked our staff what they think. Out of 361 responses, only 11% support the existing plan. The clear majority support 100% virtual instruction (62%) and others prefer a hybrid A/B schedule (27%) to lower the number of students in the building.
We believed that the district would make rational decisions, but our faith seems to be misplaced. Every day more evidence shows that children can spread the disease to their families and teachers, as well as become seriously ill themselves with long term side effects. It is not safe to open the Summit public schools at this time. We are not asking for a full year of virtual learning; rather, we respectfully request that the start of school be virtual to allow for better adherence to health and safety guidelines.
We want to share our concerns with the community before we take further action.
The Summit Education Association
August 17 2020
Summit and national coronavirus statistics and trends
Around the country, some districts have had to close after student tested positive for coronavirus. Read more here.
In Summit, the rate of coronavirus has been relatively low. See recent statistics here.
As of Monday, more than 170,000 Americans had died of coronavirus, and more than 5.4 million have tested positive.
In New Jersey on Thursday, Gov. Phil Murphy said the number of coronavirus cases statewide has risen to 186,594, with 14,054 confirmed deaths. That included 699 new cases since the day before and eight newly confirmed deaths.
However, that death rate has declined since back on April 30, when it reached a peak of 460 residents in 24 hours.
On Tuesday, New Jersey updated its list of states that residents must quarantine upon returning from. Two new states have been added. Read more: NJ Updates Coronavirus Travel Quarantine For 31 States
Here are statewide coronavirus resources:
NJ COVID-19 Information Hub: https://covid19.nj.gov/
General COVID-19 questions: 211
NJ COVID-19 hotline: 800-222-1222
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This article originally appeared on the Summit Patch