MAPLEWOOD, NJ — On their first day back to school since the start of the pandemic last March, teachers across the South Orange Maplewood School District walked out during their lunch period.
The protest was a coordinated action by the South Orange Maplewood Education Association (SOMEA) in response to the mandatory return to school buildings that began today.
David Mastrodonato, chair of the SOMEA Action Committee and history teacher at Columbia High School, was among the protesters that lined Parker Avenue this afternoon.
“It is a tremendously unnecessary risk to repopulate buildings at this time,” said Mastrodonato. “We are just weeks away from getting the vaccine.”
Teachers, who will become eligible in the next phase of vaccination, carried signs that read ‘1B is worth the wait’ and ‘Just wait we’ll vaccinate.’ With vaccination just around the corner many teachers are distressed by this return which SOMEA President Rocio Lopez said was putting teachers, students and families “into a situation of very real danger.”
Miguel Peña, Spanish teacher and Head SOMEA Representative at Maplewood Middle School, said it was the safety concerns that brought him and the other teachers out to protest. Peña said filters were still being installed in some classrooms that teachers were working in. Tomorrow a third party will be inspecting the buildings and doing a walk through to ensure that all the safety concerns are addressed before in-person instruction begins next week.
Some classrooms are used by multiple teachers; special education classes have multiple teachers in the room at a time. Teachers note these are among the reasons why having the proper ventilation and PPE has been so important to them even before students return to the building.
After seeing people express their concerns online, district parent Khadijah White penned a letter of support for the teachers and is asking parents to sign their names before she sends it to Superintendent Ronald Taylor and the Board of Education.
White echoes the teachers' platform by asking that they not return until they have been vaccinated and incorporates some other ways that parents wish this whole process was working better for vulnerable groups. The letter currently has about 50 signatures; White plans on collecting signatures for one more day before sending the letter to the district.
A press release from SOMEA President Lopez cited the recent surge in cases in Essex County due to the holidays and the variant strain first identified in the U.K. She again highlighted the imminence of vaccine availability for teachers.
“We will be sending a letter to Dr. Taylor, urging him to consider postponing our return until the vaccines are amply available, for the safety of all,” said Lopez.
Many parents protested outside several district schools today alongside the teachers to show their support for the district staff. Sara Paddock of South Orange showed her support as she “drove by and honked at the Annex, MMS, SOMS, and CHS with my son holding up his sign 'I want my teachers to be safe' and my sign 'We support teachers!' They seemed to appreciate it!”
Parent Kim Collins said she secured a brief meeting today with an administrator at CHS today about safety and supplies. She introduced herself “as a parent in favor of remaining virtual until teachers have the opportunity to be vaccinated.” She said he “confirmed that each teacher — and each in-person student — receives two cloth masks.” The South Orange resident added that “he said he believes they do not need cleaning supplies or gloves but agrees that better masks are helpful” and that the district would gladly accept donations of PPE. Collins said if opening up happens, then there are many local parents and organized groups “who will step forward to supply/contribute funds for PPE to help protect teachers.”
Phase 3, the first phase of student returns, will begin January 19. This will include English Language Learners, Special Education students and students in PreK-2nd, 6th and 9th grades. Although Phase 4 was due to begin Jan. 25, the district has postponed the phase which would have brought all remaining students back. The district will revisit the reopening plan in early February to determine whether they will be transitioning into Phase 4.