CAMDEN, NJ — Sturae Meyers, a Camden teacher since 2003, is concerned that without a vaccine and the proper protocols in place children and their loved ones will be unnecessarily exposed to COVID-19 come fall. 

“It's about the kids coming out and their safety...about whom they may inadvertently expose,” Meyers, who works at Cooper Poynt Family School, told TAPinto Camden on Wednesday morning. “Are we prepared? Do we have what we need in terms of sanitation and [safety measures] in classrooms?”

The Camden City School District (CCSD) is still “in planning mode,” she said, but that didn’t stop a group of concerned organizers from voicing their thoughts on the much-debated call to resume school building instruction in the next academic year. 

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Parents, teachers and other local stakeholders under the Journey for Justice Alliance on Wednesday laid out a detailed list of conditions that they believe should be adhered to prior to resuming in-person education.  

District schools shifted to online coursework in mid-March and did not hold a traditional graduation ceremony this year — instead opting to recognize students virtually. 

Alisha Brown, spokesperson for the district, said reopening plans will be shared with the community during the July 28 school board meeting. 

The district approved its academic calendar June 16 - maintaining the first Thursday (Sept. 3) as the first day of school. No other details about safeguards given the pandemic have been released.

During a press conference this morning at the Camden City School District (CCSD) administration building on Cambridge Street, those gathered also rebuked recent statements made by the Trump administration — claiming they worked to “politicize” the health crisis. 

“We will not be bullied by this administration's efforts to use our children as political footballs to advance their agenda,” said Byheijja Sabree, co-founder of Camden Parent’s Union.

Last week, President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy Devos urged schools to reopen although states have encountered spikes in the past month. New Jersey is currently stalled in Stage 2 of its recovery plan, as Gov. Phil Murphy and the state health department reconsider the timeline for indoor allowances.  

Sabree, who has Multiple sclerosis (MS) — making her more susceptible to the coronavirus — said she did not have a specific vision over how education would look in September but hoped plans by the CCSD and Superintendent Katrina McCombs “err on the side of caution.”

“If my child goes to school, they may end up being a carrier, or they get it from someone else. They may not have any symptoms, but they can bring it home to me, or in the case of another student, their grandparent,” she said. “We want to make sure that everyone is protected as much as they can be.”

The Camden Student’s Union and Camden Parent’s Union were among the city-based organizations that signed the alliance’s letter, which was sent to the Trump administration Wednesday.

Local activist Ronsha Dickerson said press conferences similar to Camden’s were also taking place throughout the United States: Chicago, Houston, Denver, New York City, Detroit, Little Rock, Cincinnati, and Puerto Rico.

The list of demands, some of which she read out, included:

1. Zero COVID positive cases for at least 14 consecutive days before considering reopening schools 

2. All air conditioning and ventilation units must be fully functional and meet CDC guidelines before schools reopen 

3. School transportation systems (school buses, vans, etc.) must be sanitized before and after use daily according to CDC guidelines. 

4. A teacher to student ratio of 1:10 and socially distant learning available to every student

5. Steady supply of PPE and regular COVID testing with immediate results, as well as clear and well-communicated quarantine and treatment protocols in place if/when a student tests positive 

6. Allocate the necessary resources for students with special needs and English Language Learners 

7. Union custodial staff to sanitize school buildings on a regular basis

8. A school nurse and mental health specialist for every 100 students, in every school

9. Any school with over 70% free and reduced lunch must receive the funding to become a sustainable community school

10. Elimination of ALL punitive standardized testing 

11. Elimination of police from public schools

12. Elimination of suspensions and expulsions with a commitment to "restorative justice school culture" and student leadership development

13. If parents opt out of sending their children to school, virtual learning in the public-school system must be provided, without penalty to the student 

14. Free laptops and internet access for every public-school student

“Money should be allocated to make sure that the school districts...have the maintenance staff that will actually make sure that these facilities are clean,” said Kevin Barfield, Camden County NAACP president.

Keishlen Ortiz, a Camden mother whose children attend Veterans and Dudley schools, said she’s mostly wary for her youngest who is autistic.

“I was told that [for] autistic classrooms, students will not leave the classroom unless it's to use the bathroom,” Ortiz said. “That means no free time, no going outside. For that they might as well stay home.”

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