SOMA for Safe Return to School Plans Rally on Feb. 22 to Push for In-Person Learning

by The Village Green
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From SOMA for Safe Return to School:

‘SOMA FOR SAFE RETURN TO SCHOOL’ Rallies Monday to Open Schools in South Orange and Maplewood

Parent-led group plans public protest at 5 p.m. on Feb. 22 at Maplewood Town Hall #OpenSOMASchools

On what would be the 100th day of in-person school, SOMA FOR SAFE RETURN TO SCHOOL is planning a public protest Monday, Feb. 22, at 5 p.m. outside Maplewood Town Hall at 574 Valley St.

The goal is to urge Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor, the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education and the South Orange Maplewood Education Association to reopen in-person learning immediately, five days a week for elementary and special education students.

Parents, children, educators and concerned individuals are encouraged to attend the socially distanced protest.

Since forming in December 2020, SOMA FOR SAFE RETURN TO SCHOOL’s support has ballooned, with nearly 2,000 people signing the petition for elementary and special education children to return to in-person learning five days a week. Over 100 parents joined a Zoom call this week to share their frustration with the district’s sudden shift from hybrid to all-virtual instruction, and its negative impact on their children.

“It’s been almost 350 days since most kids in South Orange and Maplewood have set foot in a classroom or met their teachers in person,” says Kate Walker, co-leader, SOMA FOR SAFE RETURN TO SCHOOL. “The needs of the youngest and most vulnerable children in this district are being pushed aside in the reopening conversation. They need to be the focus, and the priority. It is safe for schools to reopen, and our leaders need to make this happen immediately.”

The science overwhelmingly suggests that young children are not driving transmission of COVID-19, and schools are safe places for staff and students of all ages. This is particularly true with simple, low-tech precautions that include wearing masks and face shields, limiting close contact, and opening windows for ventilation. In New Jersey, the infection rate in elementary school staff teaching remotely is actually 15% higher than for staff teaching full time in person, according to data gathered from the national COVID school dashboard.

“The lack of opportunity to participate in in-person schooling is showing profound negative effects on our children – impacting not only their education, but their social and emotional well-being,” said Julie Fry, parent and co-leader of the group. “And continued closure will only continue to lower our kids’ attainment of key academic milestones.”

While most children in the SOMA district have not been in the classroom since March 2020, many local public and private schools, following CDC and New Jersey state guidelines, have been running in-person programs for months without major issue, including neighboring towns of Millburn, Summit and Livingston. Additionally, the South Mountain YMCA has been operating safely with students in South Orange Maplewood School buildings since September.

“Virtual learning has been a disaster for my son with ADHD,” said Ben Kaplan, a father of two boys in first and fifth grades at Seth Boyden Elementary School in Maplewood. “I’ve watched him fall behind academically and have resigned myself to the fact that he simply cannot learn through a screen. After a year of intense struggles, he finally qualified for in-person learning through his IEP. We signed him up, talked about it all weekend, and he packed his backpack. He was so excited. The night before he was set to go back, we got a call that devastated us and him: in-person school was canceled. It sent him into a deep depression and made me question whether the teacher’s union really cares about these kids.”

Parents and kids in South Orange-Maplewood overwhelmingly want to be back in school. In a district survey in January 2021, 64% of elementary school parents and 61% of high school parents selected the hybrid option over all-virtual instruction.

“My boys miss their teachers and their friends. My older one has difficulty focusing on a screen; he doesn’t know where to look and gets dizzy. My youngest struggles to connect with his peers and is losing confidence in his reading abilities,” said Reshma Ketkar, parent of a fourth and second grader at Clinton Elementary School in Maplewood. “As parents and as a community, we have an obligation to help them instead of hiding behind excuses. Other districts, other communities and other countries have found solutions to open schools safely. Our kids need us to do the same.”

“While there’s no doubt our dedicated teachers are working hard to make virtual learning as effective as possible, the reality is that nothing compares to having children sitting with their peers in the same physical space with teachers,” said Michael Krans, father of a first grader at Marshall Elementary School in South Orange. “We should listen to the experts, including the CDC, and learn from other school districts across the country (and the world) that have returned to schools. The message is loud and clear: with the right precautions in place, schools are safe.”

The community is encouraged to participate in the protest on Monday and bring their children, signs and masks. Click here for more details, and to sign up for the rally: https://www.facebook.com/events/424313218681548.

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. Our goals include:

  • At this late stage and with so many setbacks, we request the district stay the course in the face of opposition, and open in-person options to the greatest extent possible for all students.
  • Prove to the district there is strong community and scientific support for reopening schools. ​Enough is enough.
  • Drive a wave of support for five-day in-person schooling opportunities for elementary and special education students immediately.
  • Push administrators to give the community concrete answers on a continual basis regarding their reopening plan, and to be more transparent in their communications.

 

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