As we enter the final weeks of the first marking period in schools throughout Somerset County, one thing is clear: We are not much better off than we were when the school year began. COVID-19 cases are back on the rise, and New Jersey is quickly finding itself on the brink of a potential second wave.
Many will recall that August was a time when districts were scrambling to establish reopening plans and protocols, assuring their respective communities that these plans put the health and safety of students and staff at the forefront of any return to in-person learning. While some districts in our county faithfully follow those reopening plans and have been forthright about COVID-19 cases in their school communities, many others have not.
In some districts, we have superintendents failing to communicate potential exposure issues to their staff, students and communities. In others, we have confirmed positive cases in buildings which remained open, despite Department of Education (DOE) and Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines recommending temporary closure.
Elsewhere, we have multiple students in a school building tested positive, with no additional information provided to either educators or parents about which classes those students attended, which buses they rode, or which people they may have been in contact with—leaving many unsure if they needed to quarantine due to potential direct contact with the infected.
In yet another district, an educator was exposed to the virus on a Friday, directed to quarantine over the weekend, and tested positive the following week. However, no one else in this educator’s class—including students and another educator—were ever informed that they were near a COVID-positive individual. The district’s rationale was that since the person was asymptomatic, they were not contagious. Not only is this not true—in fact, the CDC just redefined what “close proximity” means and how it can affect you— but it calls into question how many administrators are dispensing erroneous medical advice instead of following established protocols.
To be clear, there are districts that deserve praise for taking this virus seriously. When informed of suspected positive cases, they immediately communicate with students, families and educators, and, when necessary, they quarantine everyone who came into contact and quickly pivot to virtual education. However, the sheer fact that there’s such a discrepancy between how districts handle COVID-19 exposures calls into question whether we are truly prepared to beat this virus once and for all.
Undoubtedly, every district will tell you that they are acting on the advice of their health department. Given the widely differing responses from school districts, however, it doesn’t appear as though the health departments across the county are collaborating very closely. Some even may claim that HIPPA laws prevent them from sharing information. That’s simply not true, and, frankly, we deserve cooperation, not excuses, during this difficult time. Every district and every health department in every community needs to have one singular goal: stopping the spread. The only way to do that is through consistent, reliable communication.
As more districts transition from virtual back to in-person schooling, we must demand transparency and consistency. When information is withheld, we cannot make the best decisions about how to keep our schools, students and families safe. The Somerset County Education Association (SCEA) believes nothing is more important than our collective safety, and we will continue to advocate for districts to do their part to ensure it.
Dan Epstein is an elementary teacher in Franklin Township and serves as the president of the Somerset County Education Association, which represents over 7,000 teachers, paraprofessionals, secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria staff and other certificated professionals in Somerset County public schools.