South Orange-Maplewood Schools Move ‘Indefinitely’ to Remote Learning After Teachers Union Says Members Won’t Return

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Students in South Orange and Maplewood public schools will move “indefinitely” to remote learning, the school district announced Monday evening — less than two hours after the local teachers union said that educators would not set foot in classrooms again until mid-March due to what it characterized as unsafe conditions.

“SOMEA finds itself in the repeated and forlorn position of having to advise you of the necessity to return to all-virtual instruction effective Tuesday, February 16, 2021 through March 15, 2021,” the letter said.

The South Orange-Maplewood Education Association, which represents teachers in the district’s 11 schools, has been pushing for increased safety measures as it moves students back into classrooms. Earlier this month, a week after SOMEA vowed that teachers wouldn’t return for in-person learning, the school district and the union reached an agreement for additional assurances that were not publicly disclosed.

In a follow-up email, the school district lamented the decision, and said that a “disagreement over 34 workspaces, more than a dozen of which were brought to our attention as recently as Saturday,” led to SOMEA’s action. “As we will lack the faculty necessary to staff the buildings, the district will resume virtual-only instruction indefinitely pending discussion with SOMEA’s representatives” and consultation with the school district’s labor attorney.

Earlier, the South Orange-Maplewood School District had announced in a 35-slide presentation and a video that it would postpone moving into the next phase of returning to in-person instruction until at least April 19.

In its letter to the community, SOMEA alleged that the school district’s central office directed building administrators “to disregard the express terms of the agreement” it had reached following a walk-through of all classrooms. Following the three-day inspection of classrooms and offices by local and state union officials, SOMEA claimed that more than half of the rooms were “unfit” for use — a point the school district did not concede.

See the full letter here:

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Adequate ventilation in buildings has been an ongoing issue for the school district. An architect hired by SOMSD found that one-quarter of all ventilation equipment in classrooms either lacked correct filters or motors and did not function correctly. And last week, smoke from a malfunctioning rooftop unit sent smoke into the Clinton Elementary School library, requiring it to evacuate the entire building.

In October, work on ventilation units throughout the school district was found not to have been done, despite assurances that it was complete. SOMEA also alleged that the school district did not take any corrective action against the employee responsible for stating the proper work had been done.

The union also alleged that the school district did not accommodate teachers’ requests under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits workplace discrimination of individuals with disabilities.

“Further, despite its promise to allow high-risk staff the reasonable accommodation to work from home, the district has failed to process or outright denied members’ applications,” SOMEA wrote. “These individuals have been made to take sick days.”

The Village Green has reached out to the school district, the Board of Education president and SOMEA for further comment.

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