TRENTON, NJ - Gov. Phil Murphy, along with governors of six Northeastern states - New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.- issued a statement Thursday endorsing in-person learning, despite record numbers of COVID-19 cases that continue to surge through the region and across the country, forcing many schools to close in favor of teaching online.

The New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, responded with a statement of their own, faulting the governors for minimizing the risks associated with in-person instruction.

Likewise, the Hillsborough Education Association released a statement from Henry Goodhue, HEA president, faulting Murphy as well as Hillsborough school administrators.

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In part, the NJEA statement reads:

“We call on Gov. Murphy and his fellow governors in our region to be led by the medical experts who are calling for cautious and careful approaches to schooling at this time. They should be prioritizing the health and safety of students and staff rather than repeating questionable assertions about the safety of in-person instruction that run counter to what those medical experts now say. Those assertions are not in line with the real-world situation in our schools where the number of infected students and staff is growing daily.released a joint statement Thursday supporting in-person learning."

Schools in New York City closed in all five boroughs Thursday; several school districts in Pennsylvania are closed. Locally, Manville schools are closed; Bridgewater/Raritan has closed its schools twice for weeks at a time. Schools in South Bound Brook and Bound Brook will have extended closures during Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. The Hillsborough School district has had 31 COVID-19 cases reported in the schools since Oct. 8, but remain open, with a mix of virtual and in-person instruction.

Somerville instituted an all-virtual teaching scenario effective Tuesday, Nov. 17, which will continue through the Thanksgiving holiday, resuming a hybrid schedule Nov. 30, according to an announcement on the school district's website. The closure comes after members of the Pioneers football team and field hockey team tested positive for COVID-19.

Montgomery Township announced Wednesday it would return to an all-virtual teaching platform on Nov. 23 with 33 new cases of COVID-19 reported in the schools since Nov. 13. A return to a hybrid, virtual-in person model is expected to resume Jan.19, 2021. 

The governors' statement reads:

“Medical research as well as the data from Northeastern states, from across the country, and from around the world make clear that in-person learning is safe when the appropriate protections are in place, even in communities with high transmission rates.

 “In-person learning is the best possible scenario for children, especially those with special needs and from low-income families. There is also growing evidence that the more time children spend outside of school increases the risk of mental health harm and affects their ability to truly learn.”

Here is the response from Goodhue and the HEA:

"Governor Murphy has championed public schools and school employees, which only made today's announcement that much more disconcerting. His leadership over the last 8 months has led the state through tough times, but his continued reliance upon skewed data that fails to accurately present what is taking place within New Jersey's schools is not only out of character - it is bad practice. As educators, we understand the impact this virus has had on our students and their educational experience. What we cannot understand is the Governor's sudden decision to ignore the facts and minimize our members' concerns and the risks faced each day. 

"Similarly, we have grave concerns related to Hillsborough Township Public School District’s decision to keep its schools open, despite the ongoing and alarming rise in COVID-19 cases in our community.  In a recent email to staff, Dr. Lisa M. Antunes (Superintendent of Schools) states "To date, we have had 30 positive cases in our district since students returned on Sept.8; importantly we have determined through contract tracing that all 30 of our positive cases, whether student- or staff-related, have originated from outside sources such as gatherings, parties, and/or events unrelated to schools".

"There are a number of inaccuracies in this communication.  To begin, 30 is the number of cases which the school reported since the hybrid model began, not since Sept. 8.  You may recall that on Sept.18, Mayor Doug Tomson announced his first health advisory, informing of an outbreak among school-aged children originating from a local gymnastics studio. At this time, several teams from both HMS and HHS were impacted and were asked to suspend their practice schedules. Staff received an email from Dr. Lisa M. Antunes that same day, and—since that time—there has been a steady increase in both staff and students who were exposed to and affected by the virus, yet the figures shared by the district fail to accurately present the impact of COVID-19 within our schools or student population.

"Like Hillsborough, surrounding communities have experienced a spike in COVID-19 cases. In fact, the Montgomery Department of Health noted yesterday, “We’ve had 22 cases just since Monday and 33 since Friday, indicating exponential growth and community spread here in Montgomery Township. These trends have contributed to the decision by Montgomery Township Schools to return to full virtual education starting Monday, Nov. 23. A return to a hybrid, virtual-in person model is expected to resume Jan.19, 2021.”

"Here is what we struggle to understand:  If our community has seen similarly dramatic increases in cases— 82 since last Friday— why aren’t we taking similar action?  Like Montgomery, Hillsborough consults with Dr. Mandelbaum, yet we fail to heed the same advice. This contradiction is impossible to ignore, and the misrepresentation of statistics and callous dismissal of HEA members’ concerns and needs undermines our collective goal of providing the best—and safest— education experience for our students. To date, we have seen a 42 percent increase in retirements, as well as a 44 percent increase in leaves of absence than this same time last year.

"If the current trends continue, we can expect higher than usual retirements, resignations and leaves in the coming months. Left unchanged, these trends will lead to staffing shortages worse than those currently encountered and make it far more difficult to achieve the district’s mission statement of “providing a superior education for all students.”

"As always, HEA members stand ready to achieve that mission, but this goal can only be achieved through collaboration, transparency and mutual trust. To date, we have received no response to our offers to collaboratively revisit members’ accommodation requests, meet as a District Leadership Team or reconvene the District Reopening Committee. While we appreciate those who have stated their desire to do so as well, we currently find ourselves at a critical moment with district and BOE leadership who refuse to work with the Association.

"We urge them to reconsider their decision to remain open and, instead, follow the lead of surrounding districts and prioritize the health and safety of our students and staff. Ultimately, there is no prize for being the last district determinedly maintaining the hybrid model as cases of COVID-19 skyrocket, but there is a very real cost for not acting out of an abundance of caution. We believe this price is far too high to pay."

Here is the full text of the NJEA statement, issued by Marie Blistan, president; Sean M. Spiller, vice president and Steve Beatty, secretary/treasurer:

“We are dismayed that Gov. Murphy and the governors of six other states have downplayed the danger posed to students and school staff participating in in-person instruction during the current COVID-19 surge in our region.

“As of Nov. 14, five out of six zones in New Jersey had a CALI rating of ‘high.’ That CALI score will likely rise to ‘very high’ as COVID cases are rising by the hour, and the total number of cases in New Jersey has increased by 19,000 in the six days since that data was released. School data reported by the state is misleading at best because it does not include cases where students or staff are infected with COVID during school-related activities such as sports and other extracurricular programs. School buildings and school-related activities are far more dangerous than the state’s data indicate.

“The coming holiday season, where travel and gatherings are inevitable, will undoubtedly make the situation even worse. This is no time to minimize or downplay the risks faced by our students and the educators who have worked so hard for the last eight months to keep New Jersey’s children safe, healthy and learning.

“Our members want nothing more than a return to normalcy, where we can safely interact with our students in a normal school environment. But this is not a normal environment. It is a global pandemic.  And far too many of our schools are not designed or equipped to be safe under these extraordinary circumstances. From inadequate ventilation, to lack of room for social distancing, to lack of staff to ensure small class sizes, to lack of PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) and safety precautions, to student noncompliance with required safety protocols, there are too many schools unable to provide the ‘appropriate protections’ required for safe in-person learning.

“That is why we continue to see COVID outbreaks in our public schools. That is why we continue to see classes, grades and entire buildings disrupted when students and staff come into contact with infected individuals. That is why many educators and school administrators are bravely advocating for remote education in their districts to better protect the health of their students, their colleagues and their communities, including their students’ families, many of which include vulnerable individuals. Those educators have our full support as they advocate to put health and safety first.

“In particular, we know that students and staff of color are at greater risk. Additionally, pregnant women are considered at high risk as well, a significant concern in a profession that is more than three-quarters female.

“Like working educators, medical experts recognize the risks posed by insisting on in-person education at this particular moment in the current pandemic. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Policy Lab, which previously was advising districts and schools on how to safely reopen, is now calling for remote education for all schools, saying, ‘Until now, protocols that reopened schools have been successful in preventing linked in-school transmission. Unfortunately, overall infection rates in children are rising in many areas of the country. At Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, PCR test positivity rates this past weekend surpassed 15%, a number that nearly doubled in a week.’

“Likewise, the CDC recently changed the guidance on its website, which has encouraged in-person schooling but now says, ‘the body of evidence is growing that children of all ages are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection and contrary to early reports might play a role in transmission.’

“We call on Gov. Murphy and his fellow governors in our region to be led by the medical experts who are calling for cautious and careful approaches to schooling at this time. They should be prioritizing the health and safety of students and staff rather than repeating questionable assertions about the safety of in-person instruction that run counter to what those medical experts now say. Those assertions are not in line with the real-world situation in our schools where the number of infected students and staff is growing daily.

“We agree wholeheartedly that in-person learning is the best possible scenario for all children, but only when that is safe. In too many places, it is simply not safe now. The more responsibly we act today, as the virus is surging out of control, the more quickly we will be able to return to that ideal situation without putting our children, our educators and our communities at even greater risk.”