ROBBINSVILLE, NJ - It’s been a difficult year for students, and their parents, try to do their best with at-home learning to say the least. Teachers are also pulling double duty teaching their classes while taking care of the educational needs of their own children. After a full year of remote learning, most, it seems, just want schools to go back to “normal.”

One Robbinsville mother, Louise Shea, has been a very vocal advocate for schools reopening, attending almost every Robbinsville Township Board of Education meeting in the last year. She is among a group of local residents pushing for all school-aged children to be in the classroom for full days, five days per week.

That’s what led her to file an Open Public Records (OPRA) request with the school district last month. In the request, she asked for every email communication between Robbinsville Superintendent Brian Betze, Robbinsville High School principal Molly Avery, and Robbinsville Education Association (REA) representative Debbie Bella between April 1, 2020 and March 11, 2021. She requested “every and all email correspondence” between any of the three that include the topics: COVID; convening of extra-curricular activities; vaccinations; COVID-related closures; refusals to return to in-person; reopening of schools; five full-day reopening in-person plan; and Fall 2021 reopening.  

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Within four days of the OPRA request being filed, School District Business Administrator Nick Mackres replied in writing that they had identified 15,789 emails that would fall under the parameters.  

Per the School District, the cost suggested to Shea for these documents: $14,034.67. Shea feels that this fee is an effort for her to give up on obtaining these documents.

Robbinsville School District, in their letter to Shea, estimates that it would take 88 hours for legal counsel to comb through these documents at $160 per hour at a rate of three emails per minute.

TAPinto Hamilton/Robbinsville spoke with an expert in government records and OPRA procedure who said that proposed fee for providing the documents is within the standard rate. The emails that are covered under the OPRA request would need to be reviewed and carefully redacted to protect any personally identifying information of minors, or HIPPAA protections, for anyone spoken about in the documents. That could take hours or days to comb through.

He also noted that the photocopy fee, if the requestor wants hard copies of the documents, is determined by state statute.

Betze said that the vast majority of the 15,789 have nothing to do with school opening; he estimates that only 25 percent of those emails are relevant to school reopening. 

On March 1, Robbinsville High School students returned to in-person learning five days per week but on an early dismissal schedule. Subsequently, middle and elementary School students returned to school in the same manner on March 15.

But, Shea, whose youngest daughter is a sophomore, does not think this current arrangement offers enough in-classroom time. She wants her to have the same high school experience as her siblings whose success she credits, in part, to their education in the district. This is not happening, Shea claims, because teaching on Zoom leads to watered down virtual learning.

Betze says that he speaks with Shea and well as representatives of the REA weekly and has been fully transparent with them and the public.  Betze says he likes Shea a lot as she is very engaged. "And, I like her tenacity.”

Shea, however, says “it is all just lip service.”

She believes that the union has had excessive influence in the decisions made by the District about how and when to reopen. She also believes that some teachers are “milking this for all it’s worth, and they have other reasons for wanting to stay home.”

Efforts to connect with members of the Robbinsville Education Association were not successful by the time of publication.

Betze says that’s not true and he “fully believes that kids need to be back in school.” The Superintendent also points out the Robbinsville School District is in the top seven percent of the time that students are back in classroom across New Jersey.

While Shea praises individual teachers who have been working through this pandemic, she does not think that all the communications between the District and the teacher’s union have been on the up and up.For her part, Shea says that she is going to continue to push for transparency in the conversations between the District, principal and teacher's union and is considering her options as far as appealing the OPRA fees to the State.

Betze says the District is looking to do more to get students safely back in the classroom for more hours per day as the pandemic continues.  He believes that it is important for the mental health of students for school to return as normal as possible including the annual prom and graduation ceremonies.

The District also is pushing for their educators and staff to receive the COVID vaccine with an estimated 90 percent of them expected to receive at least their first shot by the first week in April.  In the meantime, Shea would like the District to hold roundtables or additional public forums for the public to receive transparent reports on reopening plans. 

“It’s time everyone buckles down and everyone gets back to work.  A lot of people feel the same way,” said Shea.

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