July 31, 2020
Dear Elected Officials,
The Mercer County Education Association represents over 8,000 teachers, certified staff, and educational support professionals in our county’s public schools, as well as preservice members, i.e. future educators looking to do student teaching. Those members would like nothing more than to safely return to in-person instruction in September. In fact, a great number of those members have worked diligently since June with their local districts, alongside superintendents, administrators, health officials, local board of education members, parents, and other community stakeholders to develop the safest possible reopening plans for their individual districts. Despite a common goal and a wealth of creativity, there remain far too many questions and a growing body of concerns about returning to in-person instruction in just five short weeks. For this reason, we ask that the Governor order a virtual reopening of schools and that schools remain remote until the safety of all concerned can be guaranteed.
On June 26th, the Governor’s office and the NJ Department of Education released the 104 page “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education” meant to guide districts as they developed plans for reopening with the health and safety of students and staff at the forefront.
While the flexibility contained within was meant to assist the great diversity of districts in our state, it has put many of our public school districts in an impossible position. Science- and data-based guidelines for in-person instruction have been weakened by government mandates and unique district circumstances such as aging infrastructure and inadequate resources.
COVID-19 is a novel virus. We do not know enough about it yet. We do know it is a highly communicable, very dangerous virus that is most easily transmitted in crowded, indoor spaces with poor ventilation. Schools are ideal environments for the transmission of all manner of sickness for those very reasons. COVID-19 is no exception. In states that have opened up, cases have surged so greatly that as of this writing people coming to New Jersey from 36 US states and jurisdictions must quarantine for 14 days. Likewise, in many countries with populations similar to New Jersey, such as Austria, Belgium, and Greece, that had previously relaxed their restrictions, cases have crept up, and those countries have had to clamp back down. Even here in New Jersey where we have notably led the country in our successful control measures, we have not been able to reopen indoor dining or gyms. Our transmission rate is currently the highest it has been since June 14th. Moreover, four New Jersey counties: Mercer, Burlington, Camden, and Atlantic, were just identified as emerging COVID-19 hotspots by the Department of Homeland Security. To borrow from Governor Murphy’s own words from July 28, when we reopen schools to invite students and staff back, we are also inviting COVID-19.
Creative district scheduling may mitigate risk by reducing the number of students, but we must also significantly alter every activity and interaction. These necessary changes undermine the same educational best practices that we are seeking to preserve when prioritizing an in-person return: intense small group attention, hand-over-hand learning, hands-on activities, one-on-one conferencing, cooperative learning, proximity for behavior management, etc… This is to say nothing of the social element that will be so severely diminished that it is pointless to nonexistent.
Furthermore, unequal circumstances between districts and even between buildings within districts will entrench existing inequities: districts with more resources and newer infrastructure are better able to adapt than those without. Even with reduced student numbers, basic adequate air ventilation, ample washrooms, and large enough common spaces such as cafeterias, hallways, and stairwells do not exist in many of our schools, putting the students and staff in those buildings at increased risk.
Public schools have long creatively solved social problems well beyond educating youth, but this is a foe like we have never seen before. Schools were not built to and are woefully unable to adequately handle a pandemic. At the end of the day, the safest possible for many schools is just not safe enough. Reopening in person is too great a risk to the health and safety of our students, school staff, and their families.
The reopening of school facilities must be done in a deliberate, safe, and prudent manner. For these reasons, as President of the Mercer County Education Association, in consultation with my Executive Board and the presidents of our local associations, I assert that we must delay in person reopening. We must return to school virtually in September. We must allow districts to focus on planning for dynamic, effective, and meaningful virtual learning through the first marking period and re-assess on a month by month basis after. Districts must be given the time and most importantly the resources to open with proper protocols for safe operations, including widespread testing and contact tracing.
Together we can creatively address the challenges brought by beginning the school year with virtual learning; we cannot make up for lost lives. We urge you to make the decision to start virtually now, so districts and educators may begin planning.
Grace E. Rarich
President of the Mercer County Education Association
c/ Governor Phil Murphy
Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman
14th, 15th and 16th District Legislators
Interim Commissioner of the NJ Department of Education Kevin Dehmer
Interim Mercer County Superintendent Yasmin E. Hernάndez-Manno
MCEA 1st Vice President Daniel Siegel
MCEA Communication Chair Sandee Herrington