LIVINGSTON, NJ — While analyzing the results of the recent “Return to School” survey distributed to Livingston Public Schools (LPS) teachers and families, members of the Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) expressed a need to prioritize the faculty members as much as the students when making decisions for reopening in the fall.   

As seen in the photos above, survey responses indicate that Livingston parents generally feel more comfortable sending their students to school for in-person learning than teachers feel returning to their classrooms.

According to family survey results, 70 percent of the 4,197 respondents said they intend to have their children return to school if the district were to re-open for full, in-person instruction. Given the choice between a hybrid model utilizing a mix both remote and in-person learning and a five-day-a-week model with shortened in-person days, 67 percent of parents opted for the shortened-day model.

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On the other hand, survey results from 720 faculty members indicate that 55 percent of responding middle and high school teachers feel the district should implement an all-virtual model, while more than 70 percent of elementary staff members prefer either a hybrid (41.4 percent) or all-virtual (29.3 percent) model over five shortened days in person.

Reiterating that Gov. Phil Murphy has since mandated that all New Jersey schools offer an all-virtual option for families, some LBOE members expressed concern about not being able to provide the same opportunity for staff members who feel uncomfortable returning to work.

During this week’s LBOE meeting, Human Resources Department Manager Susan Burman revealed that only 21 percent of staff members currently qualify for employer paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), and Superintendent Dr. Matthew Block estimated that the percentage of Livingston Education Association (LEA) members who reported not feeling comfortable returning to the classroom was about 50 percent.

Both statistics sparked additional concerns about the district’s ability support its faculty members while also continuing to provide consistent, high-quality instruction to students.

“When the governor made the announcement about our obligation to provide an option for virtual instruction for families on behalf of their children, I was surprised that the governor did not also support the idea of giving staff an agency in the decisions that we're making on their behalf,” said board member Pamela Chirls, adding that teachers are the “most precious people" in our classrooms” and that the district needs to consider them and their families when finalizing the reopening plan.

“I don’t know how we can think about operating at the level that we expect to operate as a community without paying attention to the needs of our staff...Many of us in the corporate world [are being told] not to go into our offices until at least January, and I feel valued as an employee that I am being told by my management that they want me safe, secure and working. So I struggle with this particular response given how dear to our hearts we hold our teachers.”

Board Vice President Samantha Messer, who works professionally as the Chief of Staff for Uncommon Schools North Star Academy in Newark, urged her fellow board members and the community at large to understand that being in favor of returning to in-person learning does not indicate a lack of concern about the safety of staff members.

“This is a decision that is being made in different industries all over the country—and as someone who is going to go back to work in a school in a few weeks, I don’t feel that my employer doesn’t value me, I feel that I’m an essential worker right now,” she said. “I feel that the services that I provide to students are essential in this time. I just worry that if we’re saying that we’re in favor of going back to school, that doesn’t mean that we don’t value teachers. In fact, it might mean quite the opposite—that we value teachers so much that we don’t think that there’s a replacement for them virtually or elsewhere.”

LBOE President Ronnie Konner agreed, but reiterated that the challenge comes with determining how to fill the positions of those who are unable to return to school. In doing so, she also expressed concern about "the quality and the consistency of whatever program [the district] puts forward—whether it’s in person or remote.”

“A value I believe to all of us is the quality of the education we’re going to provide to our children, and we’ve been very careful in terms of our hiring and trying to pick the best-qualified people to be in the position to teach our children,” said Konner. “My concern twofold: Yes, we can probably fill positions; but in a normal circumstance, we might not go about it in the same way that we’re going to be forced to do with the fact that every district is also facing the same problem.

“To add complication to it, we still have the unknown factor of once we bring our children back, how will they be able to stay back, and how many different teachers or substitutes will they incur over a period of time because—due to circumstances beyond individuals’ control—they may need to quarantine, and different segments may need to close?”

Board member Charles “Buddy” August also spoke about the 21 percent—or about 100 staff members—who have one of the three prescribed situations that legally qualify them for FFCRA protection and questioned what the board would do if all of those faculty members chose not to return in the fall.

Burman noted that LPS has offered to have all existing aides certified as substitute teachers and is currently looking to hire additional staff members to supplement those who choose to take advantage of the FFCRA protection available to them. However, Block explained that the staff members calling with their concerns teach a wide array of subjects and grades, making it more difficult to replace them.

In response, LBOE member Seth Cohen agreed with Messer that in-person learning is essential, but also shared Chirls’ concern about doing what is right for the staff as well.

“Every expert I have spent my time talking to, every document I’ve read and all the research I’ve done speaks to the importance of in-person learning,” said Cohen. “That said, I feel very strongly, as does Pam, about how we treat especially those individuals who qualify as having one of the three prescribed reasons as to why they might not be able to return.

“We can do a lot better than ‘we just need to replace them.’ That doesn’t work for me; that’s not how leader organizations work. We are as strong as a school district because of the value of our people, and I cannot operate in a world where because they have one of these three prescribed reasons to not return that the best we’re going to figure out is substitute teaching and replacement. That just fundamentally goes against what leader organizations do.”

The superintendent clarified that “replacing” those who need to be on leave due to health concerns does not mean that those staff members are being eliminated from the LPS payroll. However, he said, the district needs to have substitutes in place in the event that students are back in person when their teacher cannot be.

“We're talking about trying to balance risk with what we think will provide the best educational experience for our kids,” said Block. “As we're looking at our plan, we’re trying to mitigate risk while at the same time trying to recognize that we want students to be engaged, we want students to have the best educational experience possible, and we want to give students opportunities to interact.

"But there are challenges in the way, and some of that involves the thoughts about what risks we’re taking. Certainly the families who may want to stay all remote now have that option, but the governor has not extended that same option to our staff members, so we want to make sure we consider them as well, as they are incredibly valuable assets to our school district.”

August also pointed out that all of this could be subject to change in the coming months.

“We did this survey when New Jersey’s in a pretty good position right now, but the transmission rate is rising,” he said. “If this continues, then there’s going to be no hope to open person to person…Just wait for people coming back from beaches, coming up from different states.”

Block agreed, noting that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is urging school districts to consider their local transmission rates while making their reopening plans, but that it is equally crucial to pay attention to the statewide statistics since LPS faculty members come from various communities throughout New Jersey.

“It’s generally my desire to come out with information as quickly as possible, but my hesitance to put a plan out to the community is because of all of these really significant challenges,” said Block, who was praised for his decision to hold off on distributing the final reopening plans until the district can make a fully informed conclusion.

Describing this as a “sensible” process, Chirls thanked being “thoughtful in putting a process into place that lets the committees work through the issues, but also that lets you see how things unfold before you have to present a final plan.”

More information from this week’s LBOE meeting, including details about where each of the reopening committees is in the research and planning process, will be shared in the coming days.

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