MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Parents across the South Orange Maplewood School District want to send their kids back to school — but deciding when, how and on what terms have created major rifts in SOMA’s usually tight-knit community.
“It’s not fair to working families or the kids to have so much inconsistency,” said Mary Agnant. Her 6-year-old son Dylan is a kindergartner at Marshall School who had been participating in hybrid learning two days per week.
Kristi Morse has two first-graders and a fourth grader at Tuscan School and a sixth grader at South Orange Middle School who have remained remote since the beginning of the pandemic. Though she wants her kids back in school, Morse says she is still standing behind SOMEA (South Orange Maplewood Education Association), who issued a public missive last week explaining their refusal to stay in the classrooms
after hybrid learning was started.
“They cannot trust the district to provide them with a safe working environment,” said Morse. “I wish they had written that letter in October,'' she added.
For Alison Schramm, whose first-grader Cecelia had been attending hybrid classes at South Mountain Annex, constantly switching gears between hybrid and virtual school has been an added burden during the pandemic.
“I am beyond frustrated with the state of the union. SOMEA is constantly changing the rules and moving the goalposts. It feels like we are all in a very abusive relationship,” said Schramm, adding that she considers herself a lifelong supporter of labor unions.
Donna Upton’s son is a freshman at Columbia this year, and she said she was glad to hear that the district would be holding off on Phase 4. She added that she fully supports SOMEA’s decision and would support them if they decided to kick the date back to April.
Upton said her son wanted to do hybrid learning but she and her husband decided to keep him home. “I don’t know how I would feel with a small child, but he understood,” said Upton. “Of course kids are struggling right now, because everyone is, but to downplay the risks is not the best way to approach [reopening].”
The debate over building safety has been at the center of this debate in many ways. Morse has been following the facilities problems since she experienced them first hand through her son nearly three years ago.
“These issues have been here way before the pandemic,” even now Morse said, “the only thing being discussed is air filters, not cleaning standards or anything like that.”
Like a number of SOMA families, Morse has thought about moving and will be taking her two oldest out of the district next year; they will attend the private school where their father works.
“Moving was never in the cards before the pandemic,” Morse said, but now she feels like everyone is losing sight of what’s important. “I find it shocking that so many people are pushing back on the union — pushing back on basic standards. I’m glad SOMEA is sticking up for teachers,” Morse added.
Schramm pointed to the examples in SOMEA’s letter that says she is lucky that she is able to provide her daughter with extracurriculars but is still very disappointed with the state of public education.
“I’m not excusing the district 100 percent, but we have a say in the district with BOE elections,” Schramm said. “It’s like our child’s education is all tied up by those with control in the union.”
For the Agnant family, frustrations lie with the district and the union for pointing fingers and failing to communicate transparently.
“We feel like, are they ever gonna go back? This could go on for two to three years and there's no end in sight,” Agnant said. Now, with friends and neighbors talking about moving, she is wondering if her family should be looking to move too.
Donna Upton maintained that while some districts around us that are open there are also some that are still closed.
“People say districts like us are open, well I don’t know what that means, but I live a few blocks from Newark, and they are still closed,” Upton said.
The district is currently in negotiations over 34 work sites that SOMEA has deemed unfit for use. All instruction will be virtual only until March 15 or the district and SOMEA come to another agreement regarding worksite fitness.