Judge’s ruling will send more kids into classrooms in embattled N.J. district

Posted Mar 16, 2021

A judge’s ruling in the disputed reopening of the South Orange-Maplewood school district has cleared the way for additional students to return to classrooms, starting next week.

The ruling by Superior Court Judge Jodi Alper on Tuesday is the latest twist in a battle over COVID-19 protocols, with the K-12 district’s officials seeking a full return to in-person instruction and the teachers’ union continuing to raise safety concerns.

While Alper ordered teachers in the 6th and 9th grades to return to classrooms, which administrators said will happen starting Monday, the ruling did not uphold the district’s request for an injunction against teachers’ union for exiting classrooms and working remotely from their homes, according to statements on the ruling from the district and the union. The judge’s written decision was not immediately available.

Students in kindergarten through second grade returned to classrooms on Monday.

Both sides issued statements characterizing the ruling as a vindication for their positions.

Rocio Lopez, president of the South Orange-Maplewood Education Association, called it “a win for the association, the community, and the district.”

“This has never been about a challenge to the district; this was about having our concerns and ideas heard, respected, and able to put into action so that schools could open safely,” Lopez said.

The school district, in its statement, said it had previously offered to assign the 6th and 9th grade teachers to classrooms deemed acceptable to the teachers’ union — an outcome it said was formalized in the judge’s ruling.

“This is an important and critical step in the right direction as we resume in-person instruction. The legal significance of the Court’s Order is to ensure that our community is not faced with another work district-wide interference,” stated the school district.

The battle over returning to school in South-Maplewood-Orange, a regional district with 11 school buildings and 7,200 students, is among the local reopening disputes that have drawn wider notice in New Jersey. Parents and students held an outdoor sit-in by one of the schools on Friday.

The school district withdrew from a mediation process a week ago after the union downgraded its offer to return to classrooms, starting March 15, to only grades K-2, and sought to add as a condition the board approving three additional medical accommodation requests for educators.

The outcome of that request was not addressed in the union’s statement last Thursday, in which teachers in grades K-2 agreed fo return to classrooms.

In-person instruction in South Orange-Maplewood began on Jan. 19, after more than 10 months of remote learning, beginning with hybrid instruction for grades K-2, 6 and 9, along with students in special education and English language learners. The plan was to phase in additional grades, but teachers began raising concerns about air ventilation and circulation.

On Jan. 25, after the boiler broke at one school and teachers had to keep windows open, the union voted to work from home, but then reached an agreement with administrators to continue with hybrid learning. Then teachers opted to stay home starting Feb. 15 after raising more concerns.

Tuesday’s ruling may not be the last word in court.

Another hearing is schedule for April 19, the school district said.

“We will continue to work toward greater availability of in-person instruction over the coming weeks as we target April 19 for our next phase,” the school district said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-03-17 02:14:29 -0700