MAPLEWOOD, NJ — In an evening of alternating announcements — after the South Orange Maplewood Education Association (SOMEA) said teachers will not be returning for in person hybrid learning until March 15 — the South Orange Maplewood School District has relented and will not continue with hybrid instruction for now.

The teachers' union's announcement came just over an hour after the district’s missive this evening laying out their plan to continue with Phase 3 and welcome all grade levels for hybrid learning on April 19. In a letter to the community, SOMEA accused the district of acting in bad faith by continuing to have teachers assigned to rooms that did not meet the previously agreed upon standards.

The district had not responded to TAPinto SOMA’s requests for comment by time of publication, but emailed the school community at 7:02 p.m.:

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Dear South Orange Maplewood School District Community,

We are in receipt of SOMEA’s email indicating that they are once again refusing to report to the school buildings. As per the Community Reopening Update of only a few hours ago, the District was making progress in its Phase 3 reopening with no evidence of in-school transmission. We felt that the Sidebar Agreement with SOMEA was working as intended. Notably, the initial walkthroughs resulted in agreement on numerous classrooms as being fit for use. Ultimately, it appears that disagreement over 34 workspaces, more than a dozen of which were brought to our attention as recently as Saturday, has led to this reaction. We are disappointed that our Phased reopening plan has again been disrupted. As we will lack the faculty necessary to staff the buildings, the District will resume virtual-only instruction indefinitely pending discussion with SOMEA’s representatives and consultation with our labor counsel as to remedies that will facilitate resumption of our hybrid reopening plan. Central office employees will also work virtually.

SOMEA provided examples of the acts of bad faith: in one case, aTuscan elementary school teacher's request to be moved to a different room was denied. The response from Tuscan’s principal — in a SOMEA-provided quote — included that “the classroom has an operating heater and working mechanical ventilation or alternative fresh air component and appropriate temperature ranges can be maintained as per the District’s maintenance department and/or vendor.”

According to the union, similar statements were also made, at the direction of the district, by the principals of South Orange Middle, Maplewood Middle and Columbia High School. Two of the principals’ emails also referenced consultation with Peter Romain, who SOMEA says was the person responsible for Dr. Taylor incorrectly stating that MERV 16 grade filters had been added to the univents during October’s board of education meeting.

In the letter to the board and superintendent, SOMEA also accused administrators of purposefully closing windows in some classrooms so that an accurate temperature recording could not take place. The stated reasons that some rooms students and staff were assigned to are unfit includes:

  • Teachers and students assigned to classrooms where there existed a lack of mechanical ventilation as a result of uni-vents functioning improperly, not functioning at all, or missing a motor in contradiction of Paragraph 1 of the Agreement;
  • Teachers and students forced to remain in rooms with temperatures outside Paragraph 1 of the Agreement pursuant to state-mandates;
  • Teachers and students relocated to cafeterias where the temperatures were well below state mandates, and/or the space was likewise being used by cafeteria staff members, YMCA staff members, other teachers displaced during prep periods;
  • Teachers directed to teach in the same space as other classes (due to temperatures in their own rooms) so that cohorts were not kept separate and teachers were forced to try to teach over one another and students made to filter out other teachers teaching right next to them;
  • Members directed to close windows across buildings in violation of Paragraph 1 of the Agreement to increase temperatures below state mandates without any consideration of the need for a fresh air component;
  • Teachers and students being left in rooms deemed unfit despite immediate requests for relocation upon arrival;
  • Teachers and students assigned to portables deemed to be unfit for use because of the lack of a univent and no proof of filtration in the HVAC in the classrooms. These rooms also share air with other portables through a grate on the wall, as explained to the teachers per a district vendor, and Secretaries put into offices without mechanical ventilation, lacking an odorox machine

When it comes to those with 504 Plan medical exemptions, SOMEA says that some teachers at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 have been made to use sick days due to the district's slow movement reviewing and approving requests. 15 grievances have been filed on behalf of SOMEA members as of last week.

A CHS student who came to school on the wrong cohort day was also allowed to remain in the building despite safety issues. “CHS’ administration acknowledged it had not noticed this student enter the building despite alleged inspection of each and every student to confirm they are a part of a given day’s cohort,” the letter stated.

SOMEA contends that these actions show the district’s unwillingness to comply with the Jan. 27 agreement. By delaying until March 15, SOMEA says the district will have the opportunity to make the necessary repairs and process the remaining 504 Plan requests.

SOMEA is asking for community members to reach out to state and county elected officials and request the needed funds be released so the district can make upgrades to the heating and ventilation systems planned for this summer and allow for a safe return to school this fall.

 

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