PASSAIC COUNTY - The union representing Passaic County’s education professionals, including teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and secretaries, are speaking out about their concerns with the anticipated reopening of schools for in-person learning in September.
“Simply put, our schools are not safe to open while the state of New Jersey remains in its current reopening phase,” Susan Butterfield, President of the Passaic County Education Association (PCEA) said in a letter to Carlos Rodriguez, Executive County Superintendent of Schools of Passaic County. “There is no argument that education and socialization are vital to the children we work with in Passaic County; however, we should never put them at risk unnecessarily when safer options such as remote learning are achievable.”
The letter is co-signed more than 30 union leaders in school districts across the county and is said to sent on behalf of the 11,031 education professionals who work in Passaic County.
Members are concerned that the burden of safety during the continuing health crisis falls on their shoulders including teachers ensuring students follow evolving protocols, custodians putting in extra hours to sanitize, bus drivers making extra runs, cafeteria workers distributing grab-and-go meals, secretaries facing all who enter the building, and security guards maintaining order during a tense time.
“Everyone faces increased exposure to COVID-19, with limited alternatives and even more limited access to personal protective equipment,” the letter reads, adding that many of the school buildings across the county are old, in need of capital improvements and/or are not equipped with proper HVAC filtration systems that will safely exchange air and blocking air-born virus particles. “For years, boards of education have ignored the need to address air quality issues, and, without the necessary investments in rectifying this situation, we knowingly and willingly will be exposing children to unnecessary risks.”
Delays in testing results also poses a concern, the letter says. “How can we keep our students and education professionals safe without accurate, rapid diagnostic measures in place,” the letter asks. The risk of spread is even greater because state and DOE guidelines don’t enforce the use of masks door-to-door, leaving it optional for students, and therefore at risk of getting themselves exposed, or exposing others. “If there is one lesson that we have all learned in the last few months, it is that masks stop the spread of this virus.”
“It is unconscionable that we would be expected to work in an environment where educational professionals are treated as expendable.”
With financial resources limited, the letter suggests, efforts should be put towards redirecting budgets to ensure remote learning is “the best it can be.” While supporting calls by Governor Phil Murphy to bridge the digital divide, or lack of technology at home for students and families that are more financial strapped, the letter rejects the notion that simply returning to school buildings is the best way to solve it.
“If we are concerned about the effects of school closures on the communities less apt to close the digital divide, why aren’t we having a candid conversation on the virus’ disparate and devastating impact on Black and Brown communities,” the letter asks, stating that decision makers, school officials, educators, and other stakeholders “must be clear in what reopening could mean for those children and their families and communities.”
“How can schools possibly be prepared for opening to dozens, hundreds and even thousands of individuals when restaurants and gyms cannot yet open,” the letters asks, referring to the different standards being employed to phase in reopenings. “Under existing state guidelines, grocery stores limit the number of entrants and enforce social distancing and salons larger than an average classroom allow less than ten people inside. Why are the safety protocols not the same for schools?”
Pointing out that many of their members have children of their own, the educators also said they “empathize with parents who need to work and count on their community’s schools to care for, feed and educate their children,” and how important their jobs are to them. PCEA members must, the letter says, also be concerned with juggling their work schedules to accommodate their children’s education, while also being concerned about the risk that they are bringing to their extended families by returning to schools too soon.
“These concerns are merely the tip of the iceberg as we face this unprecedented crisis, the letter concludes. “Regardless of how we address these concerns, the primary question we should be asking ourselves is how we can live with the death of our students or colleagues who contracted COVID-19 while at school?”
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