Healthy Schools Now is a coalition of more than 75 organizations representing a diverse set of stakeholders, including public school advocates, parents, social justice, faith leaders, and environmentalists dedicated to ensuring all New Jersey children and school employees learn and work in safe, healthy, modernized school buildings. Our coalition addresses ventilation, mold, school funding, temperature control, and, most recently, COVID-19. HSN/WEC has spent the last year working on state and federal guidance and working with districts to ensure that their pandemic response plans meet the state minimum requirements and that staff and students are working and learning in safe and healthy conditions.
No one could have been prepared for what this pandemic unleashed, and I believe that most of our districts did their best in an impossible situation. Our teachers and support staff certainly rose above and beyond to accommodate the ever-changing needs of their students. As we know, unfortunately, many of our underfunded districts, like Paterson, suffered from overcrowding and inadequate ventilation for decades before COVID. Those districts were then put in the impossible situation of figuring out how to address those issues and reopen their schools with limited funding and impossible time constraints.
Despite everyone's best efforts and strong desire to return to in-person learning, some districts are not in a position to do so at this time. I believe that Paterson is one of these districts.
I have formed my opinion and come to this determination based on the following.
If Paterson School District can not yet provide:
- Adequate ventilation throughout each building
- Adequate numbers of custodial/maintenance personnel to thoroughly clean and sanitize your buildings (teachers should not be cleaning and NEVER students)
- Adequate/safe electrical outlets that meet fire code to power the machines to provide extra ventilation
- Transparency so that all staff, parents, and community members feel safe and involved in your districts COVID-19 plan with consistent, timely updates and answers to all questions
- AND finally, an updated state-mandated pandemic response plan which should be located on your district website for anyone to access (which I could not locate anywhere)
Without the above, at a minimum, your Paterson's schools are not safe to reopen at this time.
It was extremely disheartening to hear speakers at a recent meeting of the Paterson Board of Education explain the current unsafe conditions inside Paterson's schools. Furthermore, it was unsettling to observe several board members appearing completely uninterested in what the public had to say. As public speakers, people poured their hearts out, some crying over losing loved ones, several board members sat laughing, distracted, and talking on their personal cell phones.
Hopefully, moving forward, some thought can be given to what is in the best interest of the staff and students in terms of their health, safety, and emotional wellbeing. Taking the time to make all of the additional repairs and reopen properly in September would certainly achieve that goal and send the message that the board and administration do, in fact, have everyone's best interest at heart.
Heather Sorge is the Organizer for Healthy Schools Now (HSN) with the NJ Work Environment Council (WEC).