As Some Students Head Back to Classrooms, South Orange-Maplewood District & Teachers Union Continue Negotiations

by Bruno J. Navarro
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Two weeks after students in South Orange-Maplewood public schools moved to all-virtual instruction — after the teachers union declined to return amid COVID-19 safety concerns — some of them will return for in-person learning next Monday.

Students in special-education programs, English-language learners (ELL) and pre-kindergarten classes are set to return next week, after the South Orange-Maplewood School District and South Orange-Maplewood Education Association reached an agreement at the culmination of a nine-hour mediation session on Thursday, SOMSD spokesperson Anide Eustache said in an email statement.

“The District is continuing mediation with SOMEA in hopes of having all students and staff return to continue Phase 3 in-person instruction as soon as possible,” the statement said.

A spokesperson for the 650-member teachers union said on Thursday afternoon, “SOMEA remains optimistic and dedicated to working towards a resolution that is both safe and sustainable for students and its members.”

Last week, the union met with a state-appointed mediator from the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC), a state agency that administers the New Jersey Employer-Employee Relations Act. The school district met with the mediator this week. Neither side has provided any additional details about negotiations, nor specific information regarding meeting times and dates.

Earlier this week, the school district sued the teachers union, looking to force educators to return to classrooms “immediately.” That lawsuit followed another filed by a group of parents seeking resumption of in-person instruction five days per week, arguing that remote learning is harming students, particularly those who receive special services.

Also this week, more than 100 local residents held a rally at the Maplewood Municipal Building to push for a reopening of schools. The demonstration drew media coverage from News 12.

The struggle around efforts to reopen schools and the teachers union’s claims that safety precautions were being ignored drew wider coverage, including a New York Magazine feature on Jan. 25.

SOMEA pushed back against what it called inadequate ventilation and claimed that the school district was ignoring teachers’ requests for accommodations under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

After a steam-heat boiler broke down at Marshall Elementary School in January, the union voted to return to virtual learning. NJ.com reported that “just seven of the more than 600 members dissented,” citing SOMEA President Rocio Lopez.

Below is a timeline of developments in the efforts to reopen schools.

Oct. 15: SOMSD announces that only teachers would head back to classrooms to prepare for hybrid learning.

Oct. 20: The school district announces a six-phase plan for resuming in-person instruction.

Oct. 21: SOMEA cites “significant concerns” in postponing teachers’ voluntary return to classrooms.

Oct. 22: Superintendent Ronald Taylor announces that a planned Nov. 12 return to school was “being reassessed” after ventilation issues were discovered in a walk-through of classrooms.

Oct. 27: The school district announces it will postpone reopening schools to Jan. 19 after a walk-through of classrooms yielded “some concerning discoveries.”

Oct. 30: Board of Education President Annemarie Maini said that the “incident has eroded away at the trust in our community” and added that the administration and BOE would have to work to rebuild it.

Nov. 13: New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy reaffirms his decision to allow school districts to make their own decisions on reopening.

Dec. 5: The school district announces a pre-recorded, virtual town hall on Dec. 17 to share information about its plan for returning to school.

Dec. 11: SOMA for Safe Return to School announces a demonstration on Dec. 12 in front of Columbia High School.

Dec. 14: The rally to reopen schools draws scores of families.

Dec. 21: Taylor shares the school district’s plan for reopening.

Jan. 8: SOMEA asks the school district to postpone reopening until teachers can receive COVID-19 vaccines. The Board of Education swears in new members and elects Thair Joshua as its president.

Jan. 12: Taylor announces that teachers will return to classrooms on Monday, Jan. 13, in preparation of hybrid learning, while Phase 4 — originally set for Jan. 25 — would be pushed back to February. SOMEA announces it will stage a walkout on Jan. 13.

Jan. 13: Teachers stage a silent, noontime walk-out to push for a delay in reopening until they can be vaccinated for COVID-19.

Jan. 20: A survey conducted by an architecture firm the school district hired finds that out of all classroom ventilation equipment, more than one-quarter of the units were not functioning properly.

Jan. 25: SOMEA cited “unsafe” and “deplorable” conditions as it announced that teachers would only teach remotely. The boiler at Marshall Elementary School goes out, resulting in cold classrooms after the backup boiler fails to heat the building adequately.

Jan. 27: SOMEA and SOMSD reach an agreement to return to hybrid instruction.

Feb. 2: After a walk-through of all classrooms and office spaces throughout the school district, SOMEA deemed half of the work spaces “unfit” for use, a characterization the school district rejected.

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