Teachers hit the streets to protest reopening schools during pandemic. ‘It’s not safe.'

Posted Jul 30, 2020

Heather Sullivan is torn.

The North Plainfield High School English teacher wants to see her students in person again after months out of the classroom.

But at the same time, she’s concerned about the spread of the coronavirus when schools reopen in September, and worries there’s no plan in place to keep educators and students alike protected.

Sullivan said she has high blood pressure, a condition the CDC warns may increase a person’s risk of severe illness from the virus, and her mother is a cancer survivor. If she became infected, it could be dangerous.

“I want to be back with my kids as much as everybody wants their kids to go back to school. I miss them. But it’s not safe,” she said, choking up. “It’s an emotional decision. I took this job because I care about the community.”

Dozens of teachers from across New Jersey took to the streets Thursday in downtown Somerville to urge Gov. Phil Murphy to reverse his decision to resume in-person instruction, and instead make the coming school year virtual.

The protest was organized by the Somerset County Education Association (SCEA), with NJ21 United, a grassroots education advocacy group.

School districts in New Jersey must submit reopening plans to the state education department. Some administrators have already announced plans, which vary widely from having just one half day of in-person instruction to five-day-a-week classes and frequent coronavirus testing for students.

Sullivan said her district released a tentative plan that would require teachers to be in school five days a week and children on an A/B schedule.

“Over the course of the week, I’ll be exposed to my full load of over 100 students. I don’t see how that plan protects me,” she said.

Murphy has faced some backlash for his plan to require schools to resume in-person instruction, with students having the option to do all-remote learning instead if they or their parents or guardians feel uncomfortable returning.

Murphy has said in-person education is necessary because not every family can hire a tutor or has the resources for remote learning. He has also said it trumps at-home learning “in terms of efficacy and the richness of that experience.”

However, there are a number of public health issues with in-person learning amid the coronavirus, said Dan Epstein, president of the SCEA.

Those include getting kids with more energy in younger grades to social distance, eating without masks during lunch indoors and the disinfecting frequently used objects, among other things, he said.

Since indoor dining remains closed, Epstein said school buildings should also remain closed.

“We need to start assuming that some of these plans are not going to go according to plan,” Epstein said. “It’s not easy to do social distancing in a kindergarten classroom. It’s not easy to disinfect art supplies the entire school needs to use as part of the art classroom.”

On Thursday, the leader of New Jersey’s second largest teachers’ union said teachers should strike if the health and safety of students and teachers cannot be guaranteed when schools reopen in the fall.

Across New Jersey, people are divided on the issue of whether to reopen schools with protective measures. A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll found 46% of adult residents say schools should reopen and 42% say remote learning should continue until there is a COVID-19 treatment or vaccine.

Mercedes Davidson, a special education math teacher at Paterson School 3, said she doesn’t feel protected going back to the classroom. Masks are required for teachers, but only optional for students.

“I’m not saying let’s never open schools, but let’s go by science,” Davidson said.

Poor ventilation in many schools due to outdated HVAC systems could also help spread infections, said Lizzandaa Alburg, who teaches gifted and talented classes at Paterson School 28.

She says she still has questions about the workload, including how teachers will handle in-person instruction in addition to remote lessons.

In addition, classroom sizes will have to be smaller to accommodate social distancing, she said, but schedules were already tight before the pandemic.

“How do you allow for 6 feet of social distancing with schedules that are already tight (and) buildings that are not equipped with proper ventilation systems?” We’re putting our staff in harm’s way ... I’m an educator, not an experiment.”

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