WAYNE, NJ - Over one-thousand parents of Wayne public school students organized via a Facebook group called Reopen Wayne Schools. The group plans a rally just before Thursday's Board of Education meeting, and they have sent a long letter to Superintendent of Wayne Schools, Dr. Mark Toback. Toback's response was just posted to the group page. Here are the highlights.
The letter began with the parents stating that keeping schools closed indefinitely is "not acceptable." Tobak's response was to say that keeping the schools closed indefinitely is not part of the long-term plan.
"The BOE did not decide to keep schools closed indefinitely. A determination was made to keep our schools closed until February 12th," wrote Toback.
Next, the letter stated: "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."
"While I respect your opinion and recognize there are numerous political issues that influence what actually happens in schools across NJ, here in Wayne we have the same two factors that have influenced the decision-making process about school openings/closings since the start of the school year:
(1) The presence of COVID in Wayne and the accompanying concerns about safety; and,
(2) The shortage of employees.
I am certain you viewed my presentation at the BOE meeting, and you can see that there was a very large increase in COVID cases for Wayne students and staff members in the days leading up to the January 14th BOE meeting. This local increase in COVID cases, coupled with the holiday surge across the US, could not be ignored when considering the interests of all stakeholders.
With regard to your statement about the teachers’ union, it would be best to address those issues directly with representatives of our local education association."
Parents wrote about the worry of their children's mental health and lack of socilization in the next section, and Toback simply responded: "We fully acknowledge concerns about mental health."
"As parents, we will no longer continue to be your fallback plan," the letter went on. "We ask you: What creative solutions have you or the board proposed in dealing with staffing shortages beyond going virtual?"
Toback: "During a crisis, we are all often confronted with making choices among a number of bad options. We do not view our parents as a fallback plan, and we hope you recognize that with the pandemic, we regularly face no-win situations that result in stakeholders being unhappy."
The Superintendent wrote the longest response to the question put forth by the parents about teacher shortages.
Toback: "Our school district is not unlike other school districts when it comes to staffing. As it stands, all certification requirements stand, which means there is a limited number of people that can take any of the teaching jobs we have available. We also understand that the community has expectations for quality instruction, and in some cases, we recognize that some candidates would not be successful in Wayne. The issue of staffing is further complicated based on the following:
(1) In most cases, we do not actually have a vacancy. This may sound strange, but what we have is over 60 teachers on leave for medical reasons and when teaching remotely, we need a certified person (substitute or otherwise certified) that can supervise students. We have a total pool of substitutes to draw upon, and each day we are open, we must dedicate over 60 substitutes for this purpose. This is in addition to the 35 or so teachers that are typically absent from school on any other day due to illness, personal leave, and any other reason where a teacher may not be in school. Our substitute pool is smaller because subs often work in multiple districts that also have the same demands for substitutes. Further reducing the substitute pool is the fact that many of our subs fall into medical categories that place them at greater risk if they contract COVID.
(2) We have teachers on other forms of leave, for example maternity leave. At any given time, as many as 40 teachers are on maternity leave. In many cases, we have had success with covering those absences with long-term replacements. The problem is that in many cases, newly hired long term replacements were serving as substitutes and this further depletes our substitute pool.
(3) Requirements for teacher professional development have not been eased and teachers must attend PD sessions to meet their licensing requirements. This continues to influence staffing.
(4) There are far fewer people seeking to work as teachers. This is a problem across the country. Traditionally, graduates would seek out substitute teaching positions as a stepping stone leading to full-time employment as a teacher. Our community benefited greatly from this situation because so many candidates were seeking permanent positions in Wayne. While Wayne still is very attractive to recent college graduates seeking to work as teachers, the numbers are not what they once were and this is compounded by the pandemic.
(5) Everyday, we receive phone calls from staff members who have been identified as close contacts of individuals that tested positive for COVID. These situations are outside of our control, but it places a huge amount of pressure on the district when we are already facing employee shortages.
(6) Related to #5 above, the requirement to contact trace and notify close contacts is work that goes on at all hours of the day and night. It is required work for schools to operate during a pandemic and there are serious implications for a failure to provide these important notices in a timely manner. In some cases, we receive notices late at night at times when contact tracing is not feasible. As a result, contact tracing creates unexpected staffing problems and school closures.
(7) Pre-pandemic, many of our employees would come to work with perhaps a slight cold or cough. Now, the standards from the CDC call upon employers to insist that staff members with symptoms remain home due to the possibility that they have COVID. This standard elevates the number of employees taking an absence when they are experiencing symptoms.
(8) Staff members often have issues beyond their control-for example the passing of a relative in another state. Pre-pandemic, staff members would take a few days and return to work. Now, travel guidance calls upon them to quarantine. While some of the quarantine requirements for travel have eased, there is still a need to quarantine and this creates additional staffing issues.
(9) Even one COVID case can have a far-reaching impact on staffing that varies from school to school.
We recognized at the start of the school year that we would experience staffing shortages and responded as follows:
(1) We created a new class of employee--the permanent sub--and we have hired as many as we can to work at all grade levels. Originally, these were high school only positions, but permanent subs are now working in all of our schools. These positions are more attractive because the subs have steady work in the same building.
(2) Recently we raised our sub rate to $150/day to attract more subs.
(3) We created an opportunity for paras to earn sub certificates and then work as subs under certain conditions."
The parent letter than compared Wayne to other school districts in New Jersey that are open. "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."
Toback's response: "I respectfully disagree. Facts about the presence of COVID vary from district to district.
The last section of the letter read: "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."
Toback's response: "We also prefer to be allies, and we do always keep our students at the forefront of the decision-making process. I respect your concerns about your children and their well- being. While I recognize that you may not agree with all of my responses to your letter, I hope you can see that great effort was put into responding to many of the issues you raised. I also hope that you see my response as an expression of respect for our parents and for the school community. There is good news in that the number of new cases from the holiday surge are dropping every day and this allows for a more hopeful outlook in every community. Our ultimate goal remains to return to school as soon as possible. We will provide the community with additional updates at our next Board of Education meeting on Thursday."