With recent numbers showing the spread of COVID-19 in New Jersey declining, many teachers, parents and students across the state once again may be expecting a return to in-person learning — but not in one school district.
There is a debate brewing between teachers and parents of students who attend the South Orange-Maplewood school district, as parents call for a return to classroom education, but teachers say the conditions inside school buildings does not allow that.
Some of those conditions, according to pictures on social media, purportedly include room with temperatures around the freezing mark. Teachers and students at buildings such as Marshall Elementary had to deal with frigid conditions when hybrid learning began last week, because the classroom windows had to be kept open for COVID ventilation purposes.
In addition to the temperature readings, pictures on the teachers union's Facebook page also show what the call deplorable conditions found upon their return to school, including holes in ceilings. Teachers were already complaining of chills and coughs, suggesting a weakening of their immune systems. They add that they are taught to teach, not be emergency workers or mental health professionals.
With the seven-day positivity rate and rate of transmission both down, students like 9th grader Caroline Griffis were excited to go back to in-person learning once again.
"I learned more in these two days than in all the virtual year," Caroline said. "I know that's an exaggeration but I feel it's super helpful to see the teachers face-to-face."
But that return is now threatened by an ultimatum sent from the teachers union to the school board, advising that teachers — seemingly unilaterally — will return to all-virtual instruction effective Wednesday. But for some parents, they believe going back to all-remote learning is doing harm to their children, and that despite some sympathy for the teachers' situation, in-person instruction is necessary.
"I have a hard time with the union saying they are not mental health professionals, so basically it's not their concern with these poor students who are suffering and whose mental health has been irrevocably changed," said South Orange parent Heather Hartzell.
As for the school administration, the decision not to return to hybrid teaching led Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor to say at a school board meeting Monday night that it is not a "perfect situation, but we're trying to do all we can to follow all guidelines to provide in-person options for our families."
Parents on Tuesday night received a call from the district, declaring Wednesday a virtual day "due to ongoing discussions" with the union, and got a text saying that more details would be coming in the morning.
Now the fight over in-person schooling leaving students seemingly caught in the middle.
"If they're not comfortable being back in school, then I'm not," said Caroline, referring to her teachers. "I don't want you to be in danger, I don't want my parents to be in danger, and I don't want them to be in danger."
The battle comes as officials from the Centers for Disease Control said in a report that schools should reopen as soon as possible if social distancing and mask-wearing can be maintained to keep in-person learning safe. Research supports "a path forward to maintain or return primarily or fully to in-person instructional delivery," according to the study, which provides a framework for how to open schools safely while limiting the spread of COVID-19.