Schools in Paterson, NJ among last holdouts to in-person classes
While the state this week announced that all schools will resume in-person, full-time instruction after the summer, the state’s largest teacher’s union has been hesitant about fully committing to that reopening plan, on the heels of the worst of the pandemic.
"There is still work to do to ensure that every student and staff member returns to a safe learning and working environment. Unfortunately, there are still many school buildings throughout the state that don’t meet minimum standards for the health and safety of students and educators," New Jersey Education Association President Marie Blistan said in a written response to New Jersey 101.5 on Monday.
The NJEA declined to elaborate on which districts were struggling to meet minimum standards, as well as any self-reported estimates on how many educators have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Back in January, access to COVID vaccines for educators had been pushed as a priority for reopening by the union, which said at the time that “Our schools are too important to wait one day longer than necessary."
As vaccine supply grew over the early spring, districts partnered with local and county health departments and hospital systems to provide educator clinics. As of May, doses have become readily available statewide, not just to adults but those 12 and older, under the FDA clearance for the Pfizer vaccine.
Paterson has been the continued high profile district where its local union has been vocally opposed to the school district’s reopening plans.
The Paterson Education Association said that they had not been given “unfettered access to inspect all ventilation units,” and portrayed the schools superintendent in an image with a mock “failing” report card on its association website, even as the district announced that staff would be returning to school buildings on June 1.
The PEA also compiled a presentation of various building grievances, from the need for HVAC inspections, to not enough signs in different languages urging students to continue frequent hand washing.
Paterson’s local teachers union also reacted harshly to the recent updated guidance from CDC allowing no masks for fully vaccinated people, even though it did not apply to schools.
“The CDC is a political hack organization that bows to political pressure. This decision is proof,” the PEA said on Twitter.
Trenton also has been struggling between its local teachers union and the district's attempt to return to the classroom, which spurred a lawsuit in late April.
"Is hybrid instruction worth the disruption for Trenton families for the remainder of the school year," was the title of a flyer the Trenton Education Association posted to its website, telling families of students who had not been in-person with educators for more than a full year that "There is nothing normal about hybrid instruction."
Hybrid instruction did resume for Trenton students, on a staggered schedule of grades and cohorts, over the first two weeks of May, according to the district website.
Other school districts that had been among the last round or two to return to some form of in-person instruction appear to have resolved their biggest obstacles, at least for the new year ahead.
“Schools will open for PreK-12 students on September 9, full time, five days a week. We are eager to begin the school year anew and welcome everyone to the buildings,” according to Montclair Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds.
Montclair’s district at one point had been suing its local teachers’ union, before the lawsuit was withdrawn and an agreement reached.
Similarly, in South Orange-Maplewood, there had been stressful failed negotiations leading to the slow phase in of hybrid instruction on a staggered grade basis.
As of late May, the district had announced a summer program for students in grades K-12, while being “committed to using every available classroom to offer as much in-person learning as possible. We are excited that student interest in these summer programs is very high and have been working to fill the necessary positions to accommodate our needs,” amid renovations to many of the district’s school buildings.
Jersey City similarly has been only recently returning to hybrid instruction, on a rolling basis, with younger students in late April and some high school students last week, according to a Sunday update from Superintendent of Schools Franklin Walker.
The end of the year was slated to continue with each group of students getting at least two days of in-person instruction, while Jersey City Public Schools also have been planning an in-person summer program for elementary and high school students.
As of Monday, just nine schools or districts around the state reported being all-remote, while 371 reported being on hybrid instruction.
Of those all-remote, Hillside Public Schools have been working toward a hybrid return on May 24, which is the same date that Waterford Public Schools have been set to return from a food-borne illness that forced two weeks of remote learning.
That leaves Paterson, Passaic City and Pleasantville Public Schools as the remaining districts all-remote heading into the last week of May
Another 388 districts or schools have been opened for all in-person instruction, and another 43 have reported being in a combination of those models.