Parents to hold protest Monday, urge immediate return to school for children in South Orange, Maplewood

On what would have been the 100th day of in-person school for this year — and the 346th day since schools were open to students — parents in the South Orange-Maplewood School District are planning a public protest Monday night, urging that students be allowed to return to school immediately.

The group, SOMA for Safe Return to School, said it is ready to argue what many feel to be true: That children are falling behind academically while suffering emotionally — and that science overwhelmingly suggests young children are not driving transmission of COVID-19, and schools are safe places for staff and students of all ages.

The group said it will stage a protest at 5 p.m. outside Maplewood Town Hall at 574 Valley St. The goal is to urge Superintendent 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 issue of in-school instruction figures to only grow in 2021. It could be a key issue in the upcoming elections.

Co-leader Kate Walker described the group’s feelings this way:

“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. 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.”

The group, which has a website and the services of a public relations firm, lists its mission as such:

“We are parents, students, taxpayers and concerned individuals within the South Orange-Maplewood School District. We are pushing for a safe return to our public schools to accommodate as many students as possible, while prioritizing the most vulnerable and supporting our teachers. Our goals include:

  • At this late stage and with so many setbacks, we request the district stay the course in the face of opposition, and open in-person options to the greatest extent possible for all students.
  • Prove to the district there is strong community and scientific support for reopening schools. ​Enough is enough. 
  • Drive a wave of support for five-day, in-person schooling opportunities for elementary and special education students immediately.
  • Push administrators to give the community concrete answers on a continual basis regarding their reopening plan, and to be more transparent in their communications.” 

The group says the science overwhelmingly suggests that young children are not driving transmission of COVID-19, and schools are safe places for staff and students of all ages. This is particularly true with simple, low-tech precautions that include wearing masks and face shields, limiting close contact and opening windows for ventilation.

In New Jersey, the group said, the infection rate in elementary school staff teaching remotely is actually 15% higher than for staff teaching full-time in person, according to data gathered from the national COVID school dashboard.

Julie Fry, parent and co-leader of the group, said remote learning is hurting the community.

“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,” she said. “And continued closure will only continue to lower our kids’ attainment of key academic milestones.”

While most children in the South Orange-Maplewood district have not been in the classroom since March 2020, the group said many other local public and private schools, following CDC and New Jersey state guidelines, have been running in-person programs for months without major issue, 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.