Essex County Education Association: We cannot support reopening of schools in September

Anthony Rosamilia, the president of the Essex County Education Association — which represents more than 12,000 educators in the county — sent a letter to the county superintendent and dozens of elected officials Friday, saying the county’s teachers do not feel schools should reopen in September.

The letter, signed by the heads of 27 Education Association groups in Essex County, said the dangers stemming from COVID-19 are too real to ignore, even with proposed guidelines from the state. The group said there’s no guarantee safety protocols will work. And that teachers and administrators should be devoting the remainder of summer to preparing for remote learning.

“For us, the danger that COVID-19 presents is all too real,” the letter said. “For the last several weeks, our members have been faithfully participating in reopening committees in our districts. We would like nothing more than to return to our classrooms and offices to educate our students in a safe environment. However, it is clear that the science supports that reopening school buildings this fall is unsafe.

“Therefore, the Essex County Education Association cannot, in good faith, support the reopening of public schools for in-person instruction in September.”

Anthony Rosamilia of the ECEA.

With nearly 800,000 residents, Essex County is the third-largest in the state, trailing only Bergen and Middlesex.

Rosamilia said the association is asking leaders to make a move to all-remote learning as soon as possible.

On Friday, the state released guidance saying parents could request all-remote learning. Rosamilia is asking that be made mandatory for all.

“We are asking that you recognize the obvious, that it is totally unrealistic to expect that we can safely open our schools for in-person instruction in September,” the letter said. “By declaring a remote start for school in September now, this will provide parents time to arrange for child care and educators to better prepare for remote instruction.

“Time, though, is of the essence. Districts are wasting precious weeks creating plans with convoluted schedules and Plexiglas dividers that are plainly unworkable.”

The letter notes the best of intentions and planning, but said the risk to the health and safety of students and staff is too high.

“We know that indoor activities in small spaces for long periods of time presents the highest risk for the spread of COVID-19,” the letter said. “Currently, the New Jersey Department of Health acknowledges that, short term, indoor dining is not safe. The World Health Organization now agrees that COVID-19 may spread through the air in indoor enclosed spaces. Just this week, it was reported that scientists also believe that COVID-19 may be spread by HVAC units.

“Enclosed spaces and long periods of time describe the exact conditions in our classrooms. In addition, chronic problems with HVAC systems in our buildings are prevalent across the county, even in well-resourced districts. To address just that one issue, it would likely take tens of millions of dollars and probably more than a year. This reflects the magnitude of the problems we face.”

Rosamilia said a lack of funding will be an issue.

“There are countless other health and safety issues that are equally daunting, including busing and COVID testing and tracing, and they come during a time when we are facing budget shortfalls and no guarantee of assistance from the federal government,” the letter said.

Rosamilia also said compliance from students will be a challenge.

“Small children are not developmentally able to understand or undertake social distancing,” the letter said. “It will be an impossible task to keep them apart. As educators, we are problem-solvers and inherently optimistic. Just try to teach a lesson on Halloween and you will see optimism personified. But this is not a challenge to be overcome, it is an impossibility.

“If we open buildings for in-person instruction, make no mistake, students will not maintain social distance and the results may be deadly. For some of our students, compliance with rules is often difficult. Therefore, regardless of age level, the maintenance of safety protocols is utterly unrealistic.”

Rosamilia said the organization is eager to return to the classroom — and the social benefits that come along with it. He feels the way classes will have to be maintained potentially could hurt more than help.

“We understand that parents want to resume a sense of normalcy for their children,” he said. “We want that too. But we all need to understand the new realities of classrooms in the age of COVID-19.

“As a teacher for the last 24 years, I can attest that educators have spent the last decade engaged in an effort to emphasize the social and emotional development of our students. Simply put, we understand now more than ever that, for students to learn, they must feel safe, welcome and part of the community. How exactly will they do that with desks spaced 6 feet apart? How will they feel as they are constantly reminded to stay apart from their friends, and to not touch their masks, and to not share supplies and keep to their Plexiglas ‘personal space’ in the classroom? How will that work exactly, with kindergarteners?”

Rosamilia said actions such as going to the bathroom will now require the careful orchestration — and that instructional time will be lost to monitor sanitizing and compliance to social distancing and mask-wearing. He also feels both students and adults will be stressed out by the experience.

More than that, he argues there even with “all these draconian measures,” there is still no guarantee that students will be safe from COVID-19.

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