BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ — Elementary teachers expressed fear and concern at last night’s reorganization meeting over the district’s plan to reopen as 'Plan A' this Monday, Jan. 11, for grades one through five. 

The district plans to transition grades one through five to their ‘Plan A’ posture; while Columbia Middle School resumes hybrid learning, with its ‘Cohort A’ returning on Jan.11.

A transition to 'Plan A' will see more students in the classroom. Students whose parents have opted out of in-person instruction will not be required to attend and will continue their education remotely. 

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Thomas P. Hughes Elementary, William Woodruff Elementary, Mountain Park Elementary and Columbia Middle School are all opening their doors to students on Jan. 11. Governor Livingston High School is set to resume hybrid learning on Monday, Jan. 25.

The district is currently all-remote as a safety precaution in wake of COVID-19 numbers spiking due to the increased interpersonal contact during the holiday season. 

In an email to parents on Thursday, Jan. 7, leading up to the district’s reorganization meeting, Superintendent Dr. Mellisa Varley listed the dates of return before the board met for their first meeting of 2021.

“We look forward to seeing our students in person for K-8 on January 11th and GL on January 25th,” said Varley. “Grades 1-5 will return on January 11th with Plan A, 6-8 will return with Cohort A, and on 1/25 GL will return with Cohort A. Pre-K and K will remain the same.”

Varley updated the district on current COVID-19 numbers during her Superintendent's report and within her email to parents. 

They are as follows:

  • Governor Livingston, 10 students with no in-school exposure.
  • Columbia Middle School, one student, with no in-school exposure; and one staff, close contacts having been notified.
  • William Woodruff Elementary, two students with no in-school exposure. 
  • Thomas P. Hughes Elementary School, one student, no in-school exposure. 
  • Mary Kay McMillin Early Childhood Center, two students, no in-school exposure. 

Teacher Fear

Numerous elementary teachers expressed concern for their safety and shared their own experiences trying to maintain appropriate safety measures. These protocols include social distancing, reminding students to remain masked; and staying within their designated area of learning. 

One such educator was Librarian Mary Niedenfuhr who took time during the public hearing to share her experiences and concerns regarding the impending transition to 'Plan A'

“Like most special area teachers, I work with over 400 students and well over 30 staff members as I move from classroom to classroom teaching my library classes,” said Nidenfuhr.

“I’m very concerned with the decision to move to Plan A, I think it is unsafe for students and staff,” Nidenfuhr added.

“We cannot be socially distant in most, if not all the classrooms I enter to teach,” said Nidenfuhr. “In my opinion, with the current COVID-19 conditions in Berkeley Heights, Plan A is a reckless option.”

Wendi Goldstein a Spanish teacher at Hughes and Mountain Park echoed her colleague's concerns during the public hearing.

“I often worry that I could be a superspreader from room to room; and from school to school,” said Goldstein.

Goldstein alternates three days in Mountain Park and three days in Woodruff. She noted that she sees a few hundred children during her three-day split in each school. Goldstein said she has been extremely diligent following safety protocols such as always remaining masked, sanitizing, and only touching her own things.
 
“I often have difficulty getting my cart into the classroom and keeping a safe social distance from the children. Although most desks shields are in place during this hybrid model, the shields are still a bit flimsy and the children are young and often do not always keep their chairs safely behind the desks.

“Often the children will have their mouth covered, but not their little noses. As thoughtfully and caring as I can, I point to my own nose covering under my shield and show the children that we all need to stay covered, explaining that I know it’s not easy, but this is what we all need to do in order to try and remain safe and healthy,” said Goldstein.

“Some children, unfortunately even pull their mask off when they sneeze, cough, or talk,” observed Goldstein. “I’m teaching under these conditions because I love to teach.” 

Referencing continued COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the state and the unique danger she faces being exposed to so many students, Goldstein expressed fear for herself, family, friends and community. 

“Many of us are really concerned for our health and safety,” said Goldstein. “Everyone wants school to be back to normal. I wish it could be too. I wish every day, but it isn’t safe,” remarked Goldstein. “It isn’t safe for any of us.”