OPINION: Parent Group Pushes South Orange-Maplewood to End Mask Mandates, Plexiglass Partitions

by SOMA for Safe Return to School
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The following is a press release from SOMA FOR SAFE RETURN TO SCHOOL:

Nearly two years after schools shut down in March 2020, SOMA FOR SAFE RETURN TO SCHOOL is advocating for the removal of COVID restrictions that hinder student education, including mask mandates, plexiglass partitions in cafeterias, and travel quarantines. The parent-led group of more than 1,000 will be speaking out at the South Orange Maplewood School District (SOMSD) Board of Education meeting tonight, along with several children.

Plexiglass at Marshall Cafeteria. Credit: SAFE RETURN TO SCHOOL

“While adults are socializing at bars, concerts and sporting events without masks, our children continue to carry the burden and are forced to operate in a highly restrictive environment,” says Kate Walker, co-leader, SAFE RETURN FROM SCHOOL and South Orange parent of three. “It’s critical that we get rid of outdated measures like plexiglass dividers in the cafeteria – something that is no longer recommended by the state – and prioritize helping our children heal from the last two years of trauma.”

In October 2021, The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association jointly declared a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health. The report cited soaring rates of mental health challenges among children, adolescents, and their families over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, due to disruption and stress brought on by the virus.

Caspian Ziobro, 2nd grade at Marshall. Credit: SAFE RETURN TO SCHOOL

“These ongoing COVID restrictions are contributing to learning loss as well as a mental health crisis in our community,” adds Gina Preoteasa, South Orange parent of three children in the district. “Our kids have been living under socially repressive protocols for two years now and it’s time for them to end – especially as the District has reported a 90%+ vaccination rate for teachers, staff and kids over 12, and a 75% rate for students under 12.”

New COVID cases are at miniscule levels: the SOMSD dashboard reported just five new cases this week, down from only 11 the previous two weeks.

Children across SOMA expressed dismay at this week’s District announcement that masks will be required despite the Governor’s lifting of the mandate on March 7: “I really want to see my friends and teachers smile again,” said Isla, a second grader at Tuscan Elementary School in Maplewood.

Jack, a sixth grader at Maplewood Middle School, says, “Plastic dividers are absolutely terrible. They stop us from socializing. And everybody always complains about how we’re addicted to our Chromebooks. But the schools make us addicted to our Chromebooks. We’re not allowed to talk to anybody or anything because of [the barriers].”

Plexiglass at Marshall Cafeteria. Credit: SAFE RETURN TO SCHOOL

Specifically, the group is asking Dr. Ronald Taylor, Superintendent, and the Board of Education for the following:

  1. Make masks optional in indoor and outdoor settings on March 7: With the support of Governor Murphy and in following with the nearly 200 N.J. districts who have followed suit, SOMSD needs to adopt a “masks optional” policy for both outdoor and indoor school settings. One-way masking has proven effective and is an option for families who feel more comfortable doing so. Families who see the health benefits in letting their students learn mask free will also be allowed that choice. We further demand that the outdoor mask optional policy remain in place regardless of COVID cases in schools or locally, regardless of whether hospitalizations increase and regardless of outbreaks, in accordance with the CDC and state recommendations.
  2. Remove plexiglass partitions in cafeterias: In addition to the numerous studies that have found plastic partitions at shared tables ineffective or even causing more risk for spread, they are no longer part of the CDC or N.J. Department of Health (DOH) school guidance even when students are unmasked in the cafeteria. These partitions create an isolating lunch experience for students during what should be a social growth experience for them. We urge the district to discontinue the use of this ineffective measure that adds to the emotional and social burden that our children are still being asked to carry.
  3. End the travel quarantine for unvaccinated students: Local private preschools have done away with quarantining after domestic travel for the unvaccinated. It’s time that SOMSD does the same. With covid restrictions lessening in New Jersey and every other state, there’s no extra risk associated with time spent outside the tri-state region versus staying within our state, or even towns. A negative PCR test prior to return to school after travel would be a much more realistic alternative to quarantine in an effort to keep children where they are best served: in school.
  4. Implement Test to Stay: On February 2, the N.J. DOH issued guidance for districts to implement a “test to stay” policy, which would allow for healthy, unvaccinated students who have had a COVID exposure to remain in school until a positive test. This is a crucial element to keeping our pre-K students, all of whom are too young to be vaccinated, in school – as well as students whose parents opt to not vaccinate them. Several other states have used this system successfully since the state of this school year, and SOMSD has the opportunity to pioneer this policy that keeps students where they belong while healthy: in school.

“I want to see my friends’ faces. I don’t like the dividers because I can’t hear my friends talk to me at lunch. I don’t like the dividers in the classroom because we can’t share spaces,” said Lars, a second grader at South Mountain Elementary School in South Orange. Jack, a second grader at Marshall Elementary School in South Orange, said: “The plastic walls make it hard for us to speak and they just bother me. I don’t have enough space. I can’t really see my friends and it’s hard to hear them.”

About SOMA FOR SAFE RETURN TO SCHOOL

We are parents, students, taxpayers and concerned individuals within the South Orange-Maplewood School District. We are pushing for a safe return to our public schools to accommodate as many students as possible, while prioritizing the most vulnerable and supporting our teachers.

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