October 21, 8:35 p.m.: The article has been updated with comment from a SOMSD spokeswoman, and with a letter from SOMEA to its members.
South Orange-Maplewood Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ronald Taylor has delayed teachers’ voluntary return to school buildings this week, after learning of an issue of “significant” concern relating to work done to prepare the schools for the resumption of in-person learning.
Village Green obtained an email Dr. Taylor sent to teachers and staff on Wednesday, in which he said he was “rescinding” the voluntary opportunity for teachers to return to classrooms to broadcast lessons from buildings ahead of teachers’ full, mandatory return on November 9. SOMSD is tentatively scheduled to re-open schools to in-person learning for some students on November 12.
“It was just brought to my attention that a detailed walkthrough of our buildings has yielded a significant concern around the work of a vendor whom we contracted with to prepare for your return,” Taylor wrote in the email. “We are in contact with this vendor and closely assessing the situation.”
It is unclear what the issue relates to; however, the teachers’ union SOMEA noted in a recent letter to Taylor and the Board of Education that it was concerned about a lack of a third-party inspection “by experts in air systems of the rooms to which teachers and then students would report to determine the extent to which ventilation and filtration is adequate per ASHRAE guidelines.”
SOMSD district spokeswoman Anide Eustache told Village Green Wednesday night she was unable to provide more information. “Tomorrow, we will be reviewing and our facilities department will be doing a walkthrough of some ventilation work that was completed by a vendor,” Eustache said. “As a precautionary measure and to allow for facilities to perform their walkthrough with no hindrance, it was decided that teachers should not be in their classroom to broadcast teaching. We should have more concrete information tomorrow and will provide additional details then.”
A letter from SOMEA to its members obtained by Village Green provided more specifics about what precipitated the reversal. Signed by SOMEA leadership, the letter noted that SOMEA members and an NJEA (NJ Education Association) consultant conducted its first walkthrough of Marshall School on Wednesday and “were unable to finish because the district is not ready.”
The letter continued: “Issues regarding ventilation and filtration were not what the district represented them to be, and there was a lack of proper signage. Plexiglass was on order and not installed yet, and the preparation for the isolation room was not finalized. We will continue in our efforts to engage in walk-throughs in our effort to ensure a safe return to the buildings. Your safety continues to be a priority and we will keep working with the district towards that goal. SOMEA strongly advises its members not to return to the buildings until they are safe.”
See the full letter at the end of the article.
Taylor presented his “Return to School” plan at Monday’s Board of Education meeting. He spoke of the steps that had been taken in creating the plan along with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the state Department of Health and local health officials.
Regarding upgrades made to building facilities and especially, ventilation, Taylor said that high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters similar to those used in hospitals had been installed in each classroom. The district also has added filters to rooftop ventilation systems, as well as air purifiers, Plexiglas barriers and more.
BOE member Tony Mazzocchi said after the presentation that while he commended the work the district had done, “…a successful return to school will require air change rates to be addressed — the speed at which we can clear a room of airborne contaminants — and a creative schedule and use of space set up in tandem accordingly. Until I see evidence of that, I remain seriously concerned for the health and well-being of our teachers and students.”
Village Green has reached out to Taylor and the district for more information. We will follow up on this story.
Here is the full email from Dr. Taylor:
Hello SOMSD Family,
I hope this correspondence finds you well. It was just brought to my attention that a detailed walkthrough of our buildings has yielded a significant concern around the work of a vendor whom we contracted with to prepare for your return. We are in contact with this vendor and closely assessing the situation. As we have emphasized through our communications, we are in the most fluid of times and ask for everyone’s patience as we do all we can to move forward in a cautious but methodical way. We are also thankful that our lead time, transparency and partnership with SOMEA has given us the opportunity to address this concern prior to the start of our possible hybrid launch. To that end, out of an abundance of caution, I am rescinding this week’s voluntary option for teachers to broadcast their lessons from school buildings until further notice. We will share pertinent updates as we receive them.
Dear SOMEA members,
Today, Wednesday October 21st, our Health And Safety Building Pandemic Committee, which consists of building representatives and SOMEA leadership, were accompanied by an NJEA consultant on our first walkthrough at Marshall School. Unfortunately, we were unable to finish because the district is not ready. Issues regarding ventilation and filtration were not what the district represented them to be, and there was a lack of proper signage. Plexiglass was on order and not installed yet, and the preparation for the isolation room was not finalized.
We will continue in our efforts to engage in walk-throughs in our effort to ensure a safe return to the buildings. Your safety continues to be a priority and we will keep working with the district towards that goal.
SOMEA strongly advises its members not to return to the buildings until they are safe.
Rocio Lopez, President
Shira Lincoln, Vice President
Phil McCormick, Secretary
Laurie Pham, Treasurer
Michelle Rhodes-Soriano, Member Communications