MAPLEWOOD, NJ —A parents' group frustrated with nearly a year of virtual learning will be rallying tomorrow to reopen South Orange Maplewood School District's hybrid learning. 

SOMA For Safe Return to School is planning a public protest Monday, Feb. 22, at 5 p.m. outside the Maplewood Municipal Building; their goal is “to urge Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor, the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education and the South Orange Maplewood Education Association to reopen in-person learning immediately, five days a week for elementary and special education students,” the group said in a statement. “Parents, children, educators and concerned individuals are encouraged to attend the socially distanced protest.”

“It’s been almost 350 days since most kids in South Orange and Maplewood have set foot in a classroom or met their teachers in person,” said Kate Walker, co-leader, in the statement. “The needs of the youngest and most vulnerable children in this district are being pushed aside in the reopening conversation. They need to be the focus, and the priority. It is safe for schools to reopen, and our leaders need to make this happen immediately.”

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“The lack of opportunity to participate in in-person schooling is showing profound negative effects on our children — impacting not only their education, but their social and emotional well-being,” said Julie Fry, parent and co-leader of the group. “And continued closure will only continue to lower our kids’ attainment of key academic milestones.”

The group noted that while most children in the district have not been in the classroom since March 2020, many local public and private schools, following CDC and New Jersey state guidelines, have been running in-person programs for months without major issues, including neighboring towns of Millburn, Summit and Livingston. Additionally, the South Mountain YMCA has been operating safely with students in South Orange Maplewood School buildings since September.

“Virtual learning has been a disaster for my son with ADHD,” said Ben Kaplan in the group's statement; he is a father of two boys in first and fifth grades at Seth Boyden Elementary School in Maplewood. “I've watched him fall behind academically and have resigned myself to the fact that he simply cannot learn through a screen. After a year of intense struggles, he finally qualified for in-person learning through his IEP. We signed him up, talked about it all weekend, and he packed his backpack. He was so excited. The night before he was set to go back, we got a call that devastated us and him: in-person school was canceled. It sent him into a deep depression and made me question whether the teacher's union really cares about these kids.”

The district and SOMEA are due to begin mediation this week concerning teachers feeling unsafe teaching in person in district classrooms. While the statement said that school buildings are safe “with simple, low-tech precautions that include wearing masks and face shields, limiting close contact, and opening windows for ventilation,” part of the SOMEA's concern was that opening the windows in winter would leave the classrooms at temperatures below acceptable levels. 

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