TRENTON — Trenton has become the latest school district in the state to sue its local teachers union, accusing it of holding up a return to any in-person instruction for the first time in more than a year.

All 12,500 students within Trenton public schools have been learning remotely since March 18, 2020. Of the student population, nearly 20% are special education students, and about 30% are English language learners, according to district officials.

Trenton was among just 47 schools or districts that reported an all-remote learning model this week, according to state education figures released on Monday.

Amid months of concerns voiced by the Trenton Education Association over risks of COVID-19 transmission in schools, the Trenton Board of Education worked to put preventative measures in place.

One such effort was hiring an environmental engineer for air filtration recommendations, and then buying 1,500 air purifiers for every room to be used in a return to classes. The district also purchased plexiglass shields and signage and stickers to remind students of social distancing and hand washing.

In March, union members recognized those efforts and the progress that the school district had made in getting teachers COVID-19 vaccinations, during a school board meeting.

A return to classrooms for educators was announced for April 19, which was delayed as the union wanted its reps to be able to walk-through the school facilities to see the safeguards in-place.

When the district brought up plans to teach both in-person and remotely, in the hybrid learning model that has been used by a majority of public schools statewide at some point this year, the conversations “ended abruptly,” according to the complaint filed by the Trenton school board attorney.

A flyer was then sent out by the teachers’ union to community members, bringing up concerns not with in-person virus transmission, but the limitations of such hybrid learning.

The suit also noted that Trenton teachers who coach sports have been attending those activities in-person, in order to be paid for those responsibilities.

“If our students can safely participate in athletics and our teachers can safely coach, then our students and teachers can report for instruction,” according to the complaint

Montclair had sued its local teachers’ union in February, before reaching an agreement and withdrawing the lawsuit. Teachers returned to classrooms in some of the township’s 11 schools as of April 12, as the district continued to roll out a hybrid instruction model for different grade levels.

South Orange-Maplewood also has struggled between district administrators and its local union for educators, with delayed returns for teachers multiple times. The South Orange-Maplewood Education Association pushed back against plans to resume hybrid instruction for all grades at the same time, and in-person instruction restarted only for Kindergarten through grade 2 in mid-March.

As of Monday, 470 schools or districts statewide reported hybrid instruction, while 246 schools reported being open for all in-person instruction. There were 47 schools or districts that reported being all-remote, while another 48 reported a “combination” of those models across buildings.

Jersey City schools also have remained fully remote, though the schools superintendent recently announced that students would return slowly in-phases, starting with the youngest on Thursday.

 

The guidance also calls for regular cleaning of high-touch areas and an indoor face mask requirement among staffers, with a complaint and investigation procedure to respond to employers not enforcing the rules.

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