As the summer begins to wind down, we continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects. For the last several weeks, all stakeholders have spent countless hours thinking about, debating and determining how to execute a reopening plan for our respective school districts. However, this plan must be about more than just reopening the buildings; it must consider the most efficient way to keep our students, staff, and—by extension—their families safe.

We, the undersigned union leaders, have been working diligently to determine how to make that happen. As we combed through reopening plan guidelines provided by the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE), the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), we come to the same realization, over and over: Our schools are simply not prepared to reopen in a manner that maximizes the health and safety of all.

To begin, the aforementioned organizations recommend that all schools implement measures to adhere to proper social distancing guidelines. During a pandemic, that feat is nearly impossible; our schools are overcrowded and our class sizes beyond reasonable capacity, rendering us unable to keep students properly distanced.

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Additionally, many of our school buildings are not properly ventilated and simply cannot guarantee a healthy environment due to the average age of the buildings. Many of the schools already face indoor air quality issues, and many do not have properly equipped HVAC systems. With the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent declaration that the virus may also be airborne, it’s imperative that our indoor air quality environments are the best that they can be. In addition to poor ventilation, most of our schools do not contain the same square footage for each space, thus creating further concerns when it comes to social distancing and air quality. In fact, there are many districts which created “new” classrooms by splitting two rooms or converting a custodian’s closet into a classroom, and they do not contain any windows.

We appreciate your recent call for mandatory masks in school, and we firmly believe that this is a great start to protecting our school communities. However, the recommendation shouldn’t simply stop there. We also believe that in addition to masks, protective shields and/or eye protection should be mandatory for all who work in the school community. Make no mistake, we understand that any precautions set forth in your guidance are going to be next to impossible to enforce in all schools. As educators, we are the first to admit the challenges that arise when imploring students to keep their personal protective equipment on. However, we also know that they are never too young to understand their role in keeping themselves—and others—safe. Hand washing and sanitizers are a good start, but they are not enough.

This virus has devastating and ravaging effects on all age groups, and—if masks are required in both indoor and outdoor situations elsewhere—we must have them in schools, too. Recent studies have shown the virus’s devastating and disproportionate effect on Black and Brown communities. It is unconscionable that we wouldn’t do everything we can to avoid any New Jersey municipality from becoming an epicenter—and a cautionary tale.

Moreover, in the absence of a vaccine, there is just no clear way to maintain universal safety for this highly transmittable contagion. New Jersey Annotated Code (NJAC) Title XIII, Ch. 57, Subchapter 4 defines a communicable disease as a specific infectious agent. Within that section, it clearly indicates that if students do not prove they have been immunized against communicable disease, then they cannot attend school (with notable religious exemptions). Admittedly, COVID-19 is not yet on the list, but, by all accounts, it is highly communicable, infectious and can lead to death.

It is for these reasons—and more—that we believe schools should adopt a mandatory virtual reopening plan until it is deemed safe for all students and staff. We fully understand the impact virtual learning has on parents, and we also acknowledge that nothing replaces the benefit of in-person instruction. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), and AASA, The School Superintendents Association, collectively believe that science and community circumstances should guide reopening plans. In their July statement, they state that while returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff. The only plan that guarantees safety is through remote instruction for all students and educators. Yes, we must address the digital divide that still exists, and we need to learn from any shortcomings discovered during our virtual instruction this spring, but we are committed to doing our part.

But we cannot do it alone. To that end, we call upon all boards of education, administration, parents, and local, county, and state legislators to come together to do what’s best for our communities. We must be honest in what we face and where we stand; to do anything less would be irresponsible with potentially disastrous consequences. There is no doubt that these are challenging times and there are many obstacles to overcome between now and safely reopening, but we stand ready to face them.

In closing, let us be clear: Reopening in September in this current climate is dangerous, reckless and potentially deadly. For the safety and health of all, we petition that schools follow a virtual learning model until we can ensure the well-being of our children and the entire school team. If not, locals (or educators) may have to act on their own to protect the lives of those that they represent. To do anything less would be a failure of the union values we vow to uphold. We urge you to stand with us; the lives of many of New Jersey’s most dedicated public servants and their students are in all our hands.

Rose Ann Berberich, President, Academy for Urban Leadership Education Association
Mary Helen Coiro, President, Andover Education Association
Barbara Rheault, President, Atlantic County Council of Education Associations
Michael Stubbs, President, Audubon Education Association
Christina Lemanowicz and Jennifer Silvestri, Co-Presidents, Avon Education Association
William Junker, President, Barnegat Education Association
Gene W. Woods, President, Bayonne Education Association
Peggy Doorly, Co-President, Bedminster Township Education Association
Jolanta Kolodziejski, Co-President, Bedminster Township Education Association
Doug Sexton, Vice-President, Bellmawr Education Association
Kristi Weber, President, Belvidere Education Association
Sue McBride, President, Bergen County Education Association
Dali Kilpatrick, President, Berlin Borough Education Association
Kristin Beers-Williams, President, Berlin Township Education Association
Ladd Turner, Co-President, Boonton Township Education Association
Lauren Savage, Co-President, Boonton Township Education Association
Randi Lee Childers, President, Branchburg Township Education Association
Laura Kress, President, Bridgewater Raritan Education Association
Christine Hewitt, President, Burlington County Special Services Education Association
Cynthia L. Adams, President, Burlington County Institute of Technology Education Association
Danielle M. Clark, President, Camden County Council of Education Associations
Jeffrey Emerson, Vice-President, Camden County Council of Education Associations
Melissa Reitano, Secretary, Camden County Council of Education Associations
Laurie Gibson-Parker, Treasurer, Camden County Council of Education Associations
Keith Benson, President, Camden Education Association
Doug Selfridge, President, Camden Vocational Education Association
Christopher Cannella, President, Cedar Grove Education Association
Steve Redfearn, President, Cherry Hill Education Association
Sara Kozlowski, President, Chester Education Association
Paul Sommers, President, Clearview Education Association
Lori LaLama, President, Clifton Education Association
Rick Pentz, President, Collingswood Education Association
Lance Hilfman, President, Community Charter School Education Association of Paterson
Tim Campbell, President, Cumberland County Vocational Technical Education Association
Christina Dare, President, Delsea Education Association
Michael Vilary, President, Deptford Education Association
Jon Coniglio, President, Dover Education Association
Asela Laguna-Mourao, President, Dunellen Education Association
Joy Strehle, President, East Greenwich Education Association
Lisa Mangione, President, East Hanover Education Association
Jennifer Wien, President, East Orange Community Charter Education Association
Ellen Ogintz, President, East Windsor Education Association
John Griffin, President, Elizabeth Education Association
Terri Fleming, President, Elk Township Education Association
Anthony Rosamilia, President, Essex County Education Association
Joseph O’Connor, President, Ewing Township Education Support Staff Association
Ryan O’Donnell, President, Ewing Township Education Association
Dawn Ebner, President, Fair Lawn Education Association
Mary Byrne, President, Florence Township Education Association
Ryan Ellis, President, Franklin Education Association
Sharon Milano, President, Franklin Lakes Education Association
Dan Mayer, President, Franklin Township Education Association
Stephanie Cholak, President, Freehold Borough Education Association
Tracy Smolen and Christine Wagner, Co-Presidents, Frelinghuysen Education Association
Desire Brennan, President, Gateway Regional Education Association
James Fink, President, Glen Rock Education Association
Laila Gansert, President, Gloucester City Education Association
Patti McBride, President, Gloucester Township Education Association
Amie Fitzgerald, Co-President, Greater Brunswick Charter BCEA
Eugenia Xarhoulakos, Co-President, Greater Brunswick Charter BCEA
Sandra Franciosi, Co-President, Green Township Educators Association
Catherine Nowaczyk, Co-President, Green Township Educators Association
Donna M. West, President, Hackensack Education Association
Maura McDermott, President, Haddon Township Education Association
Diane Cartaina, President, Haledon Education Association
Frank Gatto, President, Hamilton Township Education Association
Carrie See, President, Hampton Township Education Association
Brady Mahar, President, Hanover Park Regional Education Association
Diane Mascolo, Co-President, Hanover Township Education Association
Andrew Graepel, Co-President, Hanover Township Education Association
Karen Green-Pace, President, Harrison Education Association
Pamela Fadden, President, Hawthorne Teachers Association
Carla Mancuso, President, High Point Education Association
Henry Goodhue, President, Hillsborough Education Association
Ellen Davis, President, Hillsdale Education Association, Pascack Regional
Angela Lawler, President, Hillside Education Association
Rosanne Versaci, President, Hoboken Education Association
Michele Bernhard, President, Hunterdon Central Education Association
Sharon M. Thomas, President, Jefferson Township Education Association
Marcy Fisher, President, Kearny Education Association
Theresa Butler, Co-President, Kittatinny Education Association (Sussex County)
Cherie Menchini, President 50, Lakehurst Education Association
Kimberlee Shaw, President, Lakewood Education Association
Stephanie Aspenburg, President, Leap Academy Teachers Association (Camden)
Eloy J Delgado, President, Linden Education Association
Anthony Rosamilia, President, Livingston Education Association
Jennifer Garcia-Griffin & Amanda Riley Co-Presidents Logan Township Education Association
Lauren Franklin, President, Long Hill Township Education Association
Matthew Millichap, President, Madison Education Association
Alexander Chinskey, Co-President, Manchester Regional Education Association
James Hornby, Co-President, Manchester Regional Education Association
Cynthia Miller, Co-President, Manchester Regional Education Association
Grace E. Rarich, President, Mercer County Education Association
Janice Brill and Margaret Hood, Co-Presidents, Merchantville Education Association
Jonathan Stevens, President, Metuchen Education Association
Carolyn Muglia, President, Middlesex Education Association
Kristine Giglio and Michele Monteleone, Co-Presidents, Milltown Education Association
Petal Robertson, President, Montclair Education Association
Donna Simon, President, Montvale Education Association, Pascack Regional
Scott M. Riotto, President, Montville Township Education Association
Laurie Schorno, President, Morris County Council of Education Associations
James Capozzi, President, Faculty Association of the County College of Morris
Nicole Taddeo, President, Morris Hills Regional District Education Association
Doug Bozarth, President, Mount Laurel Education Association
Leshaun Arrington, President, New Brunswick Education Association
Jake Mull, President, Newton Education Association
Dan Farinola, President, North Arlington Education Association
Carrie Rohlff and Rosaria Taormina, Co-Presidents, North Haledon Education Association
Cathy Miyoshi-Miller, President, North Hanover Twp. Education Association
Theresa Fuller, President, North Plainfield Education Association
Elizabeth Solowey, President, Oaklyn Education Association
Christine Smith, President, Ocean County Vocational Technical Education Association
Tim O’Neil, President, Old Bridge Education Association
Frank Koterba, President, Education Association of Passaic
Germaine Gibson-Williams, President, Passaic Association of Education Office Professionals
Sue Butterfield, President, Passaic County Education Associations
Anastasia Bach, President, Passaic County Ed Services Teacher's Commission
Marc P. Foti, President, Passaic County Technical Vocational Education Association
John McEntee, Jr., President, Paterson Education Association
Joe Ribitzski, President, Paterson Supervisors and Vice Principals’ Association
Rhonda Chilakos, President, Pennsauken Education Association
Ann Marie Finnen, President, Pequannock Township Education Association
Timothy Simonitis, President, Piscataway Township Education Association
Renee Szporn, Co-President, Princeton Regional School Education Association
Keith W. Coston Jr., President, Plainfield Education Association
Michael Keat, President, Rahway Education Association
Darla Ferdinand, President, Ridgefield Education Association
Eileen Camporeale, President, Ringwood Education Association
Rosemarie Longo, President, Roselle Education Association
Stephen Presa, President, River Vale Education Association, Pascack Regional
Jerelyn Hurley, Co-President, Rockaway Borough Education Association
Michael Onischuk, Co-President, Rockaway Borough Education Association
Allyson Spargo, President, Roxbury Education Association
Angela Penna and Lisa Kilgallen, Co-Presidents, Saddle River Education Association
Ken Veres, President, Sayreville Education Association
Dan Epstein, President, Somerset County Education Association
Andrew Coslit, President, Somerset County Vocational-Technical Education Association
Susan J. Sawey, President, Sparta and Sussex County Education Associations
Shari Scheckman, President, Springfield Education Association
Mary Anne Lewis, President, South Amboy Education Association
Jason Bentley and Amanda Cobb, Co-Presidents, South River Education Association
Lisa Fahrenfeld, President, Sussex-Wantage Education Association
Eileen Healey, President, Swedesboro Woolwich Education Association
Tom Crilley and Julie Toone, Co-Presidents, Tabernacle Education Association
John Dean, President, Teaneck Township Education Association
Talithea Duncan, President, Trenton Education Association
Scott Campbell, President, Toms River Education Association
Julie Klikus, President, Union County Vocational Technical Education Association
Mary Quinn, President, Upper PittsGrove Education Association
Jason Dates, Co-President, Upper Saddle River Education Association
Jonathan Kulhawy, Co-President, Upper Saddle River Education Association
Vicky Smith, President, Vernon Township Education Association
John Manning, President, Waldwick Education Association
Heather Oguss, Co-President, Wanaque Borough Education Association
Kerry Frabizio, President, Warren County College Faculty Association
Robert S. Dudley, President, Washington Twp (Gloucester County) WTSSSPA
Patti Ressland, President, Washington Township Education Association, (Morris County)
Stacey Imbimbo and John Primeau, Co-Presidents, Watchung Borough Education Association
Eda Ferrante, President, Wayne Education Association
Catherine MacManiman, President, Westampton Education Association
Julia Holloway, President, West Deptford Education Association
Jody Dolce, President, West Essex Education Association
Joan-Marie Fredericks, President, West Milford Bus Drivers and Transportation Aides Association
Kia M Collier, President, Willingboro Education Association
Julia Ogden, President, Woodcliff Lake Education Association, Pascack Regional
Gina Wirth, President, Woodlynne Education Association