WAYNE, NJ – The debate regarding Wayne public schools is intensifying and the Administration and Board of Education are caught between three groups, all of which are pulling Wayne schools decision makers in different directions.

In a letter to parents, Superintendent Dr. Mark Toback put it succinctly.

“How is it possible for any school district to simultaneously balance the differing needs of so many stakeholders during a crisis?” he wrote.

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Given the response from these different groups, the task is clearly impossible.

Parents

When the BOE decided on January 19 that the Wayne schools will remain all-virtual until at least mid-February, parents organized on Facebook and created a group called “Reopen Wayne Schools.”  Within a week, there were more than 1,000 people who had joined the group. Their goal is to get the Wayne schools back open with the hybrid model that was used when the schools opened in September.

Four hundred Wayne parents signed a letter and emailed it to Toback on Monday, laying out their reasons why the schools should stay open.  The letter, in full, is below.

This Thursday, a rally is planned outside Anthony Wayne Middle School, where parents are planning on greeting the Administration and BOE members when they enter the school for the BOE meeting.  They want to make sure they are heard.  

Students

During that same BOE meeting, a few parents asked that, if the schools are going to remain all virtual, why not make them full days?  Toback responded and has approved adding extra time to student’s schedules.  

Grace O’Neill, a student at Wayne Hills High School has started a petition asking that this decision be rescinded.  So far, over 2,600 high school students have signed this petition. See story shared from the Wayne Hills Patriot Press student newspaper.

Teachers

The Wayne Education Association has been arguing since this past summer to keep schools all-virtual and even had a vote of no confidence against the BOE because they approved a hybrid schedule, forcing teachers to work in school during a global pandemic.

With the second wave of COVID, crashing over New Jersey positive cases rose to spring levels and the BOE responded, limiting school and then deciding to not reopen until at least mid-February.  This was a short-term victory for the WEA, but they want the schools to remain all-virtual until, “it is safe.”  This could mean until all the teachers are vaccinated, or it could mean until the pandemic is considered over, and nobody knows when that will be.

The WEA has learned that parents are organizing to try re-open schools for hybrid learning. They have written a response to this, which is included, in full, below.

This Thursday’s BOE meeting should be a long one, with all three groups likely to have several of their members raising their virtual hands to make sure their voices are heard.

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Letter from Parents:

Dear Dr. Toback,

We are writing to you as the taxpaying parents of the Wayne school system. And we want you to know that the board’s decision to keep schools closed indefinitely, as currently that is the plan, is unacceptable and it is one for which we will not stand.

First off, please understand that our schools, administrators and teachers have had our full support. We have rallied when teachers have internet issues, sick days, need Wednesdays to catch up. We have sent emails of praise to our principals, supporting them in what we know is an extraordinary task. We have done virtual PTA meetings and fundraisers and continue to look for ways to keep our kids feeling safe, productive and normal. And we have worked with you, through our frustration and disappointments, to keep our kids and teachers safe.

However, the board’s decision to keep the schools closed is not a safety issue. It is a political one, motivated by a strong teacher’s union. They are using this position to force the Governor of NJ to prioritize teachers as essential workers and get them vaccinated. Such a move is one we could support, we could rally behind, we could put our voice behind…if the teachers were physically at their jobs teaching.

The problem with this argument of teachers as essential workers is it’s hard to call them essential when they are not performing their jobs in school as intended. The people stocking the shelves at Stop and Shop do not get to leave boxes of products on the floor for shoppers to pick from, explaining that as long as shoppers get their food then their jobs are being performed. This is a ridiculous argument.

Essential workers are at their jobs, performing them in the manner in which they were meant to be performed. They have to be. That is the definition of essential. Firefighters don’t do a zoom to the resident of the burning house, leaving them a hose at the front door.

If teachers want to be deemed essential, and have our support to rally the government to see them as such, that’s a tough sell if they are not in the classroom. You can’t have it both ways.

And though we understand the fears associated with in person learning, fear alone cannot be a determining factor. We are all afraid of what could be. But, as parents we are not speaking out of fear of what might happen should our children remain virtual, but rather out of fear for what currently is happening.

We understand that mental health is every bit as important as physical health. We dedicate theme weeks in our schools directed at understanding the importance of mental health, of recognizing that we must be healthy not only in our bodies but our minds as well. We have services dedicated to high risk children and we have mental health advocates.

Whereas the numbers regarding Covid are open to different factors and interpretations, such as testing availability and the rise in testing in certain areas, among other factors, the mental health numbers are indisputable. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical found that “suicide mortality rates that were rising over the past two decades, combined with the current pandemic are a perfect storm”. The ramifications of returning to in person school that your teachers are afraid might happen are not sufficient to overshadow the very present dangers that are happening…and they are gravely impacting our children.

And we will not stand by while perceived fears override actual danger.

Children are doing indoor sports. People are going into restaurants. Our communities, teachers and their families included, are living their lives in a myriad of different ways outside of the classroom, where risk is certainly ever present.

On January 11, 2021 a study out of Duke University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that out of eleven school districts, encompassing ninety thousand NC students and staff, there were exactly ZERO incidence of transmission from kids to teachers and exactly thirty-two incidence of transmission from teacher to kids. The classroom is among the safest places to be, as children are masked and social distance maintained.

As parents, we will no longer continue to be your fallback plan. We ask you: What creative solutions have you or the board proposed in dealing with staffing shortages beyond going virtual?

Dr. Toback, you mentioned that one factor in staffing shortages were not just Covid related but personal days and maternity leave. Will teachers not be taking personal days in other months? Will maternity leave cease at some point? Of course not. Yet, it has been grouped in as a reason that understaffing is in an issue. And we say: That is an issue that falls to YOU to solve…not us. Have you or your board proposed any other ideas beyond let the parents deal with it?

At last week's board of education meeting, one of the teachers posed the question, “Don’t my students deserve the best of me?” This was in regards to feeling safe and teaching from home.

And so, we too ask: Do our children not deserve the best of US? Do we expect teachers to also cook the meals,clean the house, juggle other jobs all while teaching? We do not. How can we continue to burn the candle at every end, being all things to our children and maintain any level of patience or sanity? How can we help our kids when we ourselves are crumbling under the weight of the added responsibilities of others being placed on us?

We are here to support and facilitate in any way we can…we are not here as your plan B.

How is that your best effort in crafting creative solutions??

Currently 80 schools in our area are offering in person learning, another 360 schools across NJ are offering hybrid or in person and remote instruction. Is their Covid data somehow different? Of course not.

We propose you reach out to these districts to offer you some guidance in finding solutions to keep schools open. Moreover, as Wayne is such a large school district and each school is affected differently, why are we proposing a blanket closing when it’s clear it should be on a school by school basis?

We are here to advocate for you and your teachers. We will lend our voice and our strongest support to get our teachers vaccinated. However, teachers must return to school and do their essential work. They have a strong union. We respect that. But we are the taxpayers, and our voices must carry the weight that our taxes place on us. If they do not, we are prepared to take further action…from protest to legal.

Fear cannot and should not be the guideline by which our decisions are made. Nor should politics. Our children’s wellbeing should not be used in political posturing. Schools have not been proven to be a factor in the spreading of Covid19. You can read articles attesting to these statistics from the New York Times to Bloomberg. You can look to NYC or even abroad.

Yes, there is fear. But such is our current situation. And fear simply isn’t good enough.

We are prepared to make noise. We prefer to be allies. We prefer to work for what you want to see happen. We prefer to work together. However, we will not allow the demands of the teacher’s union to supersede the needs of our children. Other schools have found a way. We are confident in your ability to do the same. And we demand you do just that.

Sincerely,

Parents of Wayne

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WEA Response to Wayne Parents Organizing to Reopen Schools:

We have learned that there is a small faction of parents in the Wayne community that have organized for the return to the hybrid learning model. We certainly empathize with these parents as our lives too have been turned upside down. However, if some of these parents truly understood the difficulty of teaching in a hybrid classroom and it’s inherent flaws, they may be less rushed to return their children to it. 

All of our lives have been unfairly uprooted by this pandemic. We feel for our children, our students, as they deal with serious emotional challenges, lack of social interaction, and possible education loss because of this crisis.  It’s far too much for anyone to be expected to deal with.   But bringing in three or four children to stare into a computer is not the answer. The educational loss would be no better, and would likely be worse as teachers have to teach to two different groups at the same time - a nearly impossible task to perform efficiently. 

Teaching remotely is difficult enough during this harrowing time. In addition to this challenge, we have the double burden of having to teach our own children as they go about their lessons. We also have ill members, members who have family suffering and we have experienced ultimate loss. In the end, although hard, we make remote work because we are professionals. 

No one wants the kids back in school more than we do. We entered the profession for that reason. It is our passion. We want them back, but we want them back safely. We want to engage with our students in the safest and healthiest way possible.  The one thing that seems beyond argument is that this virus is unpredictable and the constant mistake we have made is underestimating its wrath.  We hope that the Board of Education and Administration continues to do right by our students and staff.  Remaining virtual until the virus calms and the vaccine is more readily available is, to us, the only safe and educationally sound course for our students and for our faculty.

Eda M. Ferrante, President

Wayne Education Association