SOMEA Letter Asks for Remote-Only Instruction for Fall for South Orange-Maplewood

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Calling the push to restart in-person classroom instruction this September “not safe” amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, the local teachers union has asked the South Orange-Maplewood School District to consider a longer remote-learning plan.

The letter comes less than a week after SOMSD unveiled its options for restarting classes in the fall, either fully online or at school two days per week for pre-kindergarten, elementary and junior-high students. Newly hired Columbia High School Principal Frank Sanchez on Tuesday released a video explaining the hybrid schedule for students in Grades 9-12. Regardless, all students would begin virtually during the first two weeks beginning September 8. 

“We would like nothing more than to return to our classrooms to educate our students in a safe environment. We have dedicated our lives to the challenges of educating children and for many of us specifically the children of South Orange-Maplewood,” states the letter provided to Village Green by Rocio Lopez, president of the South Orange-Maplewood Education Association (SOMEA). “However, the best scientific evidence available today tells us that reopening school buildings this fall is not safe.”

The letter, dated August 11, cites several recent studies regarding transmission rates among school-aged children and the airborne nature of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“As more evidence and data continues to come forward from the respected medical and science communities about the spread of the coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, we are finding that with asymptomatic carriers, such as school-aged children, that the spread of the disease is still largely unknown,” it states.

The SOMEA letter also notes that New Jersey has kept in place its statewide ban on indoor dining.

Earlier this month, the state’s principals and supervisors association appealed for Gov. Phil Murphy to call for virtual-only instruction to start the year. This week, Murphy issued an executive order clearing the way for public schools statewide to offer online-only instruction and requiring school districts to create remote-learning plans for families who request it — however, the order does not disallow in-person instruction and requires remote-only districts to provide reasons for not providing in-person instruction.

SOMEA also raised the issue of the age of many school facilities, the lack of central air conditioning and rooms with “inadequate ventilation.” The letter also claims that administrators have noted the inability of the school district to obtain Plexiglas barriers “due to a lack of availability as well as funds to support such purchases to ensure adequate distancing.”

“A decision to begin the school year remotely (beyond a mere two weeks) would afford us the opportunity to engage in professional development in effective remote instruction,” the letter says, adding that SOMEA is willing to discuss “what we can do together to ensure everyone’s safety and success.”

The Village Green reached out to SOMSD Superintendent Ronald Taylor and spokesperson Anide Eustache for comment.

Planned Steps for Cleaning and Ventilation 

SOMSD Business Administrator Paul Roth, who has overseen engineering surveys of all the district’s school buildings in conjunction with a nearly $160 million capital improvement and integration plan, explained some of the steps being taken to provide clean, safe classrooms for students.

Roth said that SOMSD will transfer funds to hire additional custodial workers who will disinfect classrooms on a daily basis, using electrostatic spray guns and EPA-approved disinfectants. The additional staff will follow the regular cleaning crews, he added.

“And we are doing inventories for room readiness,” Roth said, adding that if a room doesn’t have the proper ventilation or equipment, such as the correct HEPA filter, the school principal will be informed.

“So not every room will be perfect and hence the inventory and having a good determination so building principals know that some areas may be off limits,” he said.

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