An open letter to the Summit Board of Education:
On behalf of the staff of the Summit Public Schools we would like to share our concerns about the start of the 2020-2021 school year. As much as we want to return to our students and classrooms, the members of the Summit Education Association need assurances that it will be safe to enter our school buildings. We need a plan that will protect our students, their families, and the staff. Neighboring towns, such as Westfield and Millburn, are doing more to reduce class sizes and provide time to sanitize. Summit needs to acknowledge that there is a pandemic and we must adapt our practices.
The district’s concerns about academic rigor seem to override their responsibilities to protect the students and staff. Board meetings are being held online and central office staff are working remotely. Are the buildings truly safe for our students and staff?
Our chief concern is that the lack of reasonable spacing and ventilation endangers our students and the staff. As many parents know from back to school nights, classroom spaces are tight and hallways are crowded. The district communications state that as long as everyone is wearing a mask, guidelines about minimum spacing are irrelevant. Yet, the State of New Jersey’s school re-opening guidelines clearly state that “Face coverings/masks do not replace social distancing.”
The Summit Education Association would like more details about updates to building ventilation. We’ve been informed that MERV filters have been updated, which is good news. What is being done for the large number of classrooms and offices that lack air-conditioning? It is already a struggle for students to learn when the room temperature is well over 85 degrees. What will happen when wearing a mask adds to that discomfort? In hot fall weather teachers often have to choose between keeping fans on and hearing students speak. Wearing masks will only add to this challenge.
Sanitation is another important concern. Some elementary classrooms have bathrooms, but how will these be cleaned during the school day? How will custodians clean classrooms if staff are required to remain in the afternoon?
Other districts are allowing staff to teach from home if they are in documented high risk groups. Summit needs to commit to this accommodation immediately. One science teacher has already decided to retire due to health concerns. Others are considering retiring or taking medical leave. It is less disruptive to our students to allow at risk staff to teach from home then to replace staff who retire, take leave, or resign to protect their health.
Given the current trends it is highly probable that at some point we will resume online instruction for all students. It would make more sense to focus our energies on improving our skills so that our students receive the best possible online education.
In addition, the current schedule shows a lack of trust in our professionalism. Why is the District forcing teachers to remain in the building after students depart? According to the Board’s own communications, we did an excellent job with online instruction. The Board Office has refused to allow staff to leave pick up their own children, even though there is an hour between dismissal and the start of online instruction, Staying in the building poses a serious danger to the health of the staff. It also prevents the custodians from properly sanitizing classrooms.
The Board is forcing staff whose health conditions fit the CDC definition of “high-risk” to come into the buildings. Since there are teachers in high risk categories who should only work from home, wouldn’t it make more sense for those staff members to teach the online classes? This would also allow teachers in the building to focus on more innovative lessons instead of lectures that will also be livestreamed to students at home.
We miss our students and we want to return to our classrooms. We cannot return if the buildings do not meet the highest standards for health and safety. This current plan is irresponsible and will risk the safety of our students, their families, and the staff. As dedicated educators who care deeply about our students, we cannot jeopardize their health or ours.
The Summit Education Association