Op-Ed: NJEA Case Against Reopening Schools for In-Person Classes — It’s Time to Admit It’s Just Too Dangerous

Marie Blistan | August 13, 2020 | Opinion, Education
NJEA president: ‘No rational analysis ... leads to the conclusion that we can safely reopen for in-person instruction in less than a month’
Marie Blistan

The last five months have been the most difficult months of most NJEA members’ careers. In addition to the personal challenges of navigating a global pandemic and our concern for the health and well-being of our families and loved ones, our profession has been turned upside down. In a matter of days — and in some cases in a matter of hours — we had to completely reinvent our work. We did it without hesitation, because it was the only way to keep our students learning and keep them safe.

But we also did it with a great deal of sadness, because it took us away from our students. No one understands better than educators what is lost when we cannot be with our students in person. We know the power of personal relationships, group collaboration, peer interaction and one-on-one help when students are struggling. None of those things can be recreated online as well as they can be done in person. We didn’t enter education to see students through screens or to communicate by email, and no one is more eager than educators to return to doing the work we love in the way we know is best for students.

That’s why we have worked tirelessly alongside administrators and boards of education to find ways to restore even a small measure of normalcy to our students’ lives in the upcoming school year. NJEA members have joined our districts’ reopening teams and struggled together with our administrator and community partners to find ways to return to in-person instruction without endangering our students and our colleagues. We watched hopefully earlier this summer as New Jersey’s COVID-19 metrics trended in a promising direction.

Now, though, less than a month before the scheduled opening of school, that hope is turning to trepidation as those numbers have begun a troubling reversal both in New Jersey and across the country. We see example after example of COVID clusters among young people who continue to make the mistake of gathering indoors, and we cannot help but think of our own classrooms, cafeterias, hallways and buses. We watch Gov. Phil Murphy rightly reverse course and impose greater restrictions on indoor gatherings. We see indoor dining promised and then delayed indefinitely because even with the highest safety standards it still poses too great a risk to restaurant employees and patrons and will contribute to the spread of the virus.

Much of the guidance is incomplete

As we’ve scoured the guidance from the New Jersey Department of Education, the New Jersey Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources, we’ve grown increasingly concerned. Much of that guidance is incomplete. Some of it is contradictory. And none of it gives us confidence that New Jersey’s school buildings can reopen safely in September, whether full time or under a part-time or hybrid schedule.

There is simply no level of planning we can do in the next four weeks, and no amount of caution and care we can practice in September, that will guarantee the safety of students and staff. And the scenarios we’ve had to contemplate — no group work, cafeterias closed, wearing masks and sheltering behind plexiglass unable to approach students for individual instruction — are so far removed from what existed before March that even if students come back to buildings, they will not be coming back to anything they will recognize as school. It will be an alien, intimidating experience.

We are not the only ones to reach this reluctant conclusion. Districts across the state, from Willingboro and Westampton to Bayonne and Jersey City have reached the same conclusion, declaring their intention to open remotely in the name of student safety, and the numbers are growing daily. In every case, they acknowledged the difficulty of the decision and the deep concern we all share for our students’ learning and overall well-being during periods of remote instruction. But in every case, they balanced those concerns, which we can and must address, against the dire threat to the health and even the very lives of students and staff.

They are right!

It’s time to follow the facts

We are not the only organization to believe that schools can’t open safely at this time. That is why we joined with our colleagues at NJASA and NJPSA to call on Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Department of Education to direct all districts to open remotely. No rational analysis of the situation facing New Jersey’s schools leads to the conclusion that we can safely reopen for in-person instruction in less than a month. After months of saying schools cannot open until it is safe, it’s time to acknowledge that September is simply too close to keep hoping. It’s time to follow the facts.

And there’s no time to lose in making that change, because we need every hour still left this summer to get a remote opening right. Educators need to prepare to effectively teach students they may have never met in person. Administrators and teachers need to apply their collective expertise to building structures and supports for students who will struggle academically, so they are not disadvantaged or left behind. Remote education cannot replace in-person instruction, but done right it can carry us through until in-person is possible again.

Districts also need time to address the many equity issues that will arise from continuing remote education. We have students in need of exceptional levels of therapy and personalized educational support. Districts need to address those specific, individual needs. We have students who rely on school for a major portion of their nutrition. Districts need to feed them so they can continue to learn. We have students who lack the devices or broadband necessary to participate effectively in remote education. Districts need to provide access to both for as long as we must remain remote. The sooner we stop pretending that there is some magical schedule or perfect personal protective equipment (PPE) that will eliminate the spread of the virus indoors, the sooner we can focus our time and our resources on doing things that are realistic and possible and will actually benefit students.

Making sure students are not needlessly endangered

There is a role for everyone in these trying times. Librarians will continue to support reading and literacy, especially for students who might otherwise fall through the cracks. Nurses will be sources of health information for students at a time when that is more critical than ever. Counselors and child study team members are still needed to help students navigate both the educational and emotional challenges that remote education will pose. Classroom paraprofessionals will still help struggling students keep up. Secretaries will continue to be the connection between schools and families. Food service workers are more important than ever. Custodians and maintenance workers can safely continue the work of preparing school buildings for our eventual return. Bus drivers, perhaps working alongside other educational support professionals, can deliver food, materials and technology to students who are staying home. We have the human resources we need to serve our students. We just need the freedom to do that work creatively and safely.

So much is unknown about the progress of this pandemic, including how long we will be forced to stay apart to stay safe and stay alive. But we do know this: schools are going to be central to our success in navigating it. Until we can safely reopen buildings in person, it’s going to take exceptional effort and creativity to serve our students. NJEA members stand ready to do that.

It’s time to acknowledge the obvious and begin planning for the only safe reopening of schools that is possible in September: a remote reopening where every educator is focused on making sure students are safe, served and learning, not scared, uncertain and needlessly endangered.