HILLSBOROUGH, NJ - Teachers met with Dr. Lisa M. Antunes, superintendent of schools on Sept. 1 in preparation for the new school year beginning this week, and what they heard, and what they saw during a walk-through of the school buildings has put the school district and its faculty at odds once again.

Antunes also distributed a letter to parents and the community with an update on preparations that have been ongoing for the start of the new school year, emphasizing measures that have been taken to ensure health and safety of staff and students a little more than six months after the impact of the COVID-10 pandemic.

There are nine buildings in the school district - a high school, Intermediate school and middle school and six elementary schools.

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There are 7,483 students according to the June enrollment report, and 1,000 staff represented by the HEA; 750 are teachers, the balance is support staff.

Schools reopen this week, with the school district opting for a 100 percent distance learning platform the first three weeks of school. Students will be taught by their teachers online, with a hybrid model put into effect Sept. 29, which will be a mix of virtual learning and classroom instruction in each of the district's schools.

The exception will be some special needs students, who will be attending classes in a school building beginning Tuesday, 

Teachers are required to be in their classrooms every day.

"Hillsborough Township Public Schools has met or exceeded the minimum standards required as outlined by the New Jersey Department of Education’s The Road Back Plan," Antunes wrote in her letter.

"That claim is categorically false," was the response of Henry Goodhue, president of the Hillsborough Education Association

"Our members want nothing more than to return to their classrooms and welcome students back to our schools, but we refuse to be shortchanged of our rights and watch our health and safety or our students’ be compromised," Goodhue said in an open letter to the community..

The HEA said that the district has come up short in complying with minimum standards required by the New Jersey Department of Education’s "The Road Back Plan."

During the walk-through, HEA members took photographs of what they claim are conditions in the school buildings that could compromise the health and safety of staff and students including mold, leaking ceilings and plumbing, air circulation and ventilation.

In her letter Antunes said all of those issues were to have been addressed by the end of last week, and that 95 percent of scheduled preventive maintenance on all uni-vent heaters, air conditioning units, and window air conditioning units, including filter changes had been completed in preparation for opening of schools. 

"All preventive maintenance will be completed by the end of this week," Antunes said.

The superintendent also discussed other measures taken by the school district over the summer, including stockpiling an accumulation of PPEs (Personal Protection Equipment).

Following are each of the letters distributed to the community by Antunes and the HEA:.

Dr. Antunes:

Update on Building Preparations and Childcare Opportunities

September 1, 2020

Good Afternoon,

Happy September!  We were overjoyed to welcome faculty and staff back into school this morning! I would like to take a moment to update the community on two important items:

Childcare Opportunities/Needs

We are working with several outside organizations to determine the feasibility of offering childcare for school-aged children for our families and staff (at your cost) while providing opportunities for students to work virtually within the childcare environment.  Your answers to this SURVEY will help us determine interest and need for these childcare services.  Please note that at this time, busing will NOT be provided and parents are expected to drop off and pick up their child(ren). Please remember to complete a separate form for each child by Friday, September 4. We will update you on the outcome should it be determined that it is feasible to provide childcare services.

What is the status of cleaning and sanitizing, preventive maintenance on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and purchasing of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the start of the school year?

In my address to staff this morning during their first inservice day, I shared that the district has implemented an enhanced cleaning and sanitizing process and has made a substantial investment in state-of-the-art cleaning equipment that meets the highest industry standards.  Protective shields have been installed in office areas and fabricated individual desk shields will be distributed to staff, on an as needed basis, under the guidance of the Human Resources and Business Offices.  

Hillsborough Township Public Schools has met or exceeded the minimum standards required as outlined by the New Jersey Department of Education’s The Road Back Plan.   

The district has invested over $125,000 on PPE, disinfectants and sanitizers. 

We have purchased significant quantities of surgical masks for adults and children, disposable and reusable face shields, gloves, gowns and goggles, including:

Surgical masks for adults - 23,000

Surgical masks for children - 10,000

Disposable face shields - 600

Reusable face shields - 200

Gloves - 650 (100 ct) boxes

Gowns - 250 

Goggles - 700

Plexiglass sneeze guards - 111

With regard to disinfectants and sanitizing supplies, the district has acquired the following items thus far:

Disinfectant wipes - 35,600

Microfiber rags - 1,500

Disinfectant concentrate - 180 gallons

Hand sanitizer and stands - 579 gallons

Electrostatic sprayers - 14

These supplies have been distributed across the district; more quantities are being ordered, as necessary.

With regard to ventilation and HVAC, as outlined in the NJDOE guidance, as of yesterday morning, our staff had completed more than 95% of our scheduled preventive maintenance on all uni-vent heaters, air conditioning units, and window air conditioning units, including filter changes, in preparation for opening of schools.  All preventive maintenance will be completed by the end of this week.   Rooftop units have been cleaned and sanitized for improved air flow and better overall unit performance.  Air purifiers and fans have been purchased for use in areas that may need additional ventilation.  

While we acknowledge that the start of the school year is atypical, and as we excitedly countdown to the first day of school for students on Friday, many things remain the same - first day jitters, children excited to meet their classmates and teachers, new backpacks, shiny shoes, and smiling faces!  

COVID-19 continues to change the landscape for teaching and learning.  We look to the upcoming school year with a sense of excitement, hope for new beginnings, and a return to a sense of normalcy in the near future.  

Finally, enjoy the final days of summer and the upcoming Labor Day weekend!"

Sincerely,

Dr. Lisa M. Antunes

Superintendent of Schools

Henry Goodhue, president, Hillsborough Education Association

Dear Members of the Hillsborough Community,

"As the opening week of Hillsborough’s schools comes to an end, we again find ourselves in the regrettable position of having to address continual basic safety concerns and the ongoing misrepresentations of Dr. Antunes and the Board of Education. As we face the daunting task of trying to safely reopen schools, a goal that our members remain firmly committed to, it’s clear that neither the administration nor the Board have any interest in honest conversation and full transparency. We’d like to set the record straight.

In her message to the community, Dr. Antunes claimed that, “Hillsborough Township Public Schools has met or exceeded the minimum standards required as outlined by the New Jersey Department of Education’s The Road Back Plan.” That claim is categorically false. Here’s why:

Minimum NJDOE standard: Ensure that indoor facilities have adequate ventilation by: maintaining operational heating and ventilation systems where appropriate; ensuring that recirculated air has a fresh air component; opening windows if A/C is not provided; and maintaining filters for A/C units according to manufacturer recommendations.

In her reopening message to staff, Dr. Antunes admitted that exhaust fans were not functioning properly in our schools and air was not being circulated. She went on to say that the district was “in the process” of procuring air purifiers because the ventilation was not at the minimum threshold required by the NJDOE. Mounting research has held that the air in classrooms should be replaced with clean air four to six times per hour. How can this be done with poorly functioning or broken exhaust fans?

Dr. Antunes sought to further comfort the community by stating that a high percentage of preventative maintenance and filter changes have been completed, yet she failed to mention that this preventative maintenance was already required under PEOSH Indoor Air Quality guidelines and does not address the increased demands to stave off the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) both recommend the use of MERV 13 (or higher) filters to offer greater protection. The filters touted by Dr. Antunes are in many instances the standard ones with MERV ratings of 7-8, that, at most, filter out particles like mold and dust, but offer no increased protection. In instances where this cannot be done due to the age of the unit, it is recommended to install UV filters as a secondary level of protection. This has not occurred.

Multiple classrooms, or even sections of buildings, had broken ventilation systems. Yet, we were assured by Dr. Antunes in her opening message that nearly 100% of the units had been checked, cleaned and serviced.

Additionally, it must be noted that the district still refuses to respond to the HEA’s OPRA requests for HVAC information, including unit performance reports and filter ratings. A list of items without proper context or further explanation does nothing to provide proof that minimum standards are being met.

Minimum NJDOE standard: Ensure that hand sanitizing stations are maintained with alcohol-based hand sanitizers in each classroom, at entrances and exits of buildings, and near lunchrooms and bathrooms.

By early morning on reopening day, it became clear that most buildings did not have hand sanitizer in the sanitizing stations or in classrooms. When members requested these supplies, as were promised to be in place in the HTPS reopening plan, they were told that it was unknown when it would arrive. So, while the district may have installed hand sanitizing stations, it has neglected to fill many of them, and none of the stations required to be present in each classroom were in place.

Minimum NJDOE standard: Require students, staff and visitors to wear face coverings unless doing so would inhibit the individual’s health, the individual is under two years of age, or other exceptions outlined in NJDOE’s guidance apply, while providing any necessary accommodations for young students or students with disabilities.

In Dr. Antunes’s message to the community, she stated that 23,000 adult sized surgical masks have been ordered. The question is for whom? On opening day, staff asked if the masks were going to be distributed to them, but were denied. Unlike other surrounding districts, Dr. Antunes and the Board have repeatedly stated that they will not provide even the most minimal levels of PPE to most staff because it was “cost prohibitive.” At the August 24 board meeting, Board President Lorraine Soisson stated, “...with regard to the PPE what I stated is true that you know from my perspective two dollars is not something that we should be trying to provide a mask to every staff member...I don’t feel compelled.”

Minimum NJDOE standard: Provide reasonable accommodations for students and staff identified as having a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, including older adults and individuals with disabilities or serious underlying medical conditions.

Faced with the unforeseen threat presented by the pandemic and its effect on their health or the health of their high-risk family members, some of our members sought appropriate medical accommodations under ADA regulations.

Disregarding the law and our members’ rights, the district administration responded to these members by obscuring the application process, delaying responses and largely denying the majority of requests, despite the fact that they were accompanied by the appropriate medical documentation. To be clear, our members were requesting to continue educating, to continue providing the excellent education our district is known for, and sought the legally-available accommodations to do so. The staffing impact of the district’s callous denials have yet to be fully seen and will undoubtedly extend beyond September.

Minimum NJDOE standard: Develop a procedure manual to establish schedules for increased cleaning and disinfection; targeted areas to be cleaned, including frequently touched surfaces and objects and frequent sanitization of bathrooms; and methods and materials to be used.

The Custodial and Buildings and Grounds members of the HEA have worked tirelessly to address our members’ concerns and provide the greatest degree of safety possible. Despite these incredible efforts, the district has not provided adequate supplies, training, a manual or even clarified what a “deep clean” procedure will entail. What Board leadership has repeatedly done is decrease their numbers and make it even more difficult for these dedicated professionals to keep our students and staff safe.

Minimum NJDOE standard: Incorporate a contact tracing policy in consultation with the local health department and its school nurses.

Our district is currently seeking to fill close to 50 percent of the district’s nursing positions. These critical professionals are often finding themselves split between multiple buildings and short supplied. Without adequate levels of permanent school nurses, appropriately equipped and monitored offices and COVID isolation rooms, how can the district assert that they are prepared to keep students and staff safe?

In our recent Facebook Live message to the community, the HEA presented a list of requests to safely begin the school year. These concerns remain largely ignored by Dr. Antunes and Board leadership, who seem to be more willing to obfuscate than cooperate. Our members want nothing more than to return to their classrooms and welcome students back to our schools, but we refuse to be shortchanged of our rights and watch our health and safety or our students’ be compromised. But don’t just take our word for it: We believe that a picture is worth a thousand words.

“Minimum standards” for HVAC that greeted staff on September 1st

“Minimum standards” mean staff found mold in various locations on opening day

“Minimum standards” result in ceiling tiles collapsing as roofs leaked

“Minimum standards” leave no room for social distancing in classrooms

“Minimum standards” ensure that the most basic aspects of Hillsborough’s reopening plan, like directional arrows, signage and hand sanitizer stations are missing from many hallways on opening day

“Minimum standards” allow water to leak into a coffee can and run across the floor

It’s clear that our district’s reopening plan is not what’s “Best for Boro.” In fact, we question whether Dr. Antunes and the Board leadership is what’s best for us, too. We urge the community to email Dr. Antunes lantunes@htps.us and the Board of Education at boe@htps.us and tell them that health and safety issues should never be labor-management issues. Urge them to stand with their staff, seek more than “minimum standards” and get this right, so we can all return to school safely as soon as possible. After all, when it comes to matters of life or death, there is no room for error."