SOMERVILLE, NJ - More than 100 public school teachers from throughout Somerset County made it abundantly clear yesterday that they're not happy about having to return to their classrooms in September, fearful that school buildings are unsafe because of the potential for COVID-19 infection.

Carrying protest signs and chanting "Not Until It's Safe" the group gathered on the Division Street pedestrian mall for a short rally before heading out to march up and down Main Street, continuing their chant.

It was one of several teacher demonstrations across the state yesterday, according to Patrick Frain, president of the Somerville Education Association.

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Dan Epstein SCEA president, participated in Thursday's demonstration with his two young caughters. An elementary school teacher in Franklin, Epstein said his members have several concerns, but thaet the safety of their students and their own personal safety are top priorities.

He also said the 30-minute rally and march was successful.

"We opened a few eyes," he said.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has left it up to each school district in the state to decide how to proceed in September, with several options in play - a full re-opening, shorter school days, virtual instruction or a blend of in-class and at-home instructions. The county superintendent of schools in each of the state's 21 counties is responsible for reviewing and approving each district's plan, according to Epstein.

Theresa Fuller, president of the North Plainfield Education Association, said teachers favor a gradual return to the classroom environment, and want a voice in making those decisions.

The SCEA was joined yesterday by NJ21 United, a grassroots education advocacy group to sponsor the rally.

Earlier this week, Epstein sent a letter to the SCEA membership

“Public schools are the hub of every community,” Epstein said. “Reopening before it is safe will be a grave mistake that will cost countless lives. It would reverse all of our collective efforts to control this pandemic over the past few months,” Epstein said.

Epstein sent the following letter to SCEA membership on Monday:

Dear SCEA,

As the pandemic rages, many of us have grave concerns about schools reopening in September and are incensed that we have to risk the lives and well-being of our students, colleagues, families, and communities. We’ve all adjusted our ways of life to include PPE and social distancing, but this is simply unfeasible in public schools. 

If we cannot sit down inside a restaurant, how can we be safe in a cafeteria with hundreds of children eating and talking, especially when many don’t have air conditioning or proper ventilation? How can we stay six feet apart in a crowded hallway as periods change? It is anticipated that many staff will be absent for COVID related reasons, so how do we overcome our already unmanageable shortage of substitutes? 

These are merely a sampling of the myriad questions we all have, very few of which have a satisfactory answer. Simply put, it is not safe to reopen schools at this time. Opening too soon will result in tragedy on a massive scale.

The SCEA is taking action to prevent reopening schools before it is safe. We’re sending a letter to our elected leaders– signed by local presidents– and meeting with district, county, and state officials to let them know we will not stand for unsafe conditions. 

Most of our elected officials have never set foot in a kindergarten classroom. They’ve haven’t stood for hallway or lunch duty. They’ve never cleaned an art classroom or driven a bus full of students who need constant reminders to keep their seat belts buckled. Now they’re telling us to make sure everyone socially distances and wears masks in these environments. We’ve been there and we know better. Please take action to help keep our school communities safe.

Throughout New Jersey, educators and advocates alike have been strongly voicing concerns over rush to return to buildings, many of which have failing infrastructure and no climate control, without proper funding or planning, according to Henry Goodhue, a teacher in Hillsborough and first vice president of the SCEA. 

Educators recognize that virtual instruction is not ideal, but can be refined and are committed to ensuring that students receive the best, and safest, education possible. “We all want nothing more than to have our schools open,” Epstein continues, “but not at the expense of our health, our students, our loved ones, and our communities.”