MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The sky cleared after morning snow and afternoon rain as some 100 parents and students gathered on the steps of the Maplewood Municipal Building to demand a safe return to in person school.

The rally was organized by SOMA for Safe Return to School (SOMA SRS) with the explicit goal of having schools reopened five days a week for elementary and special needs students. It was the group's second rally for their cause, having gathered on Dec. 12 at the Administration Building.

Organizers chose Monday because it would have been the 100th day of school in person during a regular school year. No elected officials from South Orange or Maplewood were in attendance. 

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“It seems that the district is saying the schools are suitable for in person. If that’s true we want the district to push back” against the teachers' union, said Julie Fry, a co-founder of SOMA for Safe Return to School. The South Orange Maplewood School District and South Orange Maplewood Education Association are set to begin mediation this week on the conflict.

Fry said her group is focusing their attention on the district because it is not their place as parents to reach out to SOMEA.

Ben Kaplan, father of a first and fifth grader in the district, is a new member of SOMA SRS. His first-grader had been attending hybrid in person and his fifth grader had just qualified through his Individual Education Plan (IEP).

“The last cancellation was the final straw,” said Kaplan. “I’m disturbed to see people now focusing on fall — I want it to happen now.”

Kaplan said his kids have been struggling academically and socially with virtual learning, and it feels like the rug had been pulled out from under them. “Nobody is speaking up for them. The kids are a ping pong ball between the district and the union.”

While he is hugely supportive of teachers getting vaccinated, Kaplan also fears that it won’t be enough. His wife has been reaching out to elected officials, and Kaplan’s next step will be to reach out to his kids’ teachers. “I think they want to be back,” he said. “After the last event we can’t be polite anymore. Next time I will be telling them they need to be pushing the union because teachers need to feel the pressure from parents.”

Clinton fourth grader Rohan Wolfe got up at the rally to speak about the effect virtual learning has had on him and his friends. Wolfe mentioned how he has seen friends move towns or switch to private schools in the past year and now his parents are talking about doing the same.

“I don’t want to move, I want to get back to normal school,” said Wolfe. 

The rally brought together a lot of very vocal parents who up until now had only been connected online. All in the hopes that this shows the district and SOMEA that they want an immediate and lasting resolution that gets their kids back in school.


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