Below is a communication sent by SOMEA to the Superintendent and Board of Education to be read at the October 19th Board Meeting regarding the directive SOMEA received to return to schools on November 9, 2020 with the intention of commencing hybrid instruction in all buildings:
Dear Superintendent of Schools and Board of Education Members,
SOMEA understands and shares the community’s desire to return to educational normalcy as we once knew it; however, as those who are making education happen each day know full well, school as we once knew it is still not possible. SOMEA asks the district respectfully to reconsider its plan to commence hybrid instruction in November, as we believe that such a plan is neither in the best health interests of students and staff nor a sound educational decision for our students. Over the past several months, teachers have committed themselves to learning how to and providing effective synchronous all-remote instruction. As administrators have acknowledged, our instruction has proven as effective as practical given the constraints of the pandemic. To change course as Essex County has been designated a hot spot for COVID outbreaks and one of our municipalities has reported a material number of COVID-positive students is ill advised when the foremost goal should be to keep our students safe and healthy to continue their studies. Moreover, as detailed more extensively below, we strongly believe that delivering remote instruction to at least half of a class on a computer at home and another portion of the class still on a computer in the classroom by a teacher under mask and shield will result in less effective instruction for all students and greater inequities among students. Instead, SOMEA believes strongly that the district should allow teachers to deliver instruction fully remotely, as they are doing successfully now, with the option for those students who are at risk due to circumstances which do not permit full participation in remote learning, such as those without access to reliable technology or in need of school supports, to attend classes online from school buildings.
Foremost, the number of COVID-positive NJ residents is skyrocketing, indicative of a second wave of the pandemic. Why would the district choose the perfect storm of influenza season, the winter months, and rising COVID infections to bring teachers and then students back into the classroom when remote instruction from home is occurring effectively?
News reports evidence the spread of COVID from adult-to-adult and student-to-adult throughout the state as a result of in-school instruction. Numerous schools throughout the state have shut down in-school instruction and been forced to delay instruction while teachers and students recuperate. Remote instruction from home eliminates entirely this clear and present danger to health and instruction.
Individuals will be introduced to unnecessary exposure to COVID. For example, while athletes have assumed the risk of exposure as a result of participation in contact sports, non-athlete students and teachers have not assumed such risk and should not have to by sharing air space when the science is unambiguous about the virility of the virus both on hard surfaces and its circulation for greater distances than six feet and for extended periods in the air.
District communications and local news agencies have reported the fact that several CHS students are not adhering to the social distancing guidelines by attending house parties without masks. Additionally, students have reported to staff that their peers have been exposed to COVID and are obstinately remaining silent about their exposure or testing results because they do not want to face quarantine from athletics or further socializing. To require teachers to return to school (unlike students who have the option to remain remote) is to endanger knowingly the health of CHS staff. Indeed, news reports from around the country evidence parents and students who have knowingly gone to school while infected with COVID.
There has been no third-party inspection by experts in air systems of the rooms to which teachers and then students would report to determine the extent to which ventilation and filtration is adequate per ASHRAE guidelines.
Given the few custodians for a school as large as CHS, there is no possibility for disinfecting hard surfaces from period to period as the CDC mandates, including chairs, desks, equipment, bathrooms, and other surfaces used by students. Nor is it within the scope of a teacher’s duties or a student’s learning objectives to disinfect in lieu of training professionals.
An in-school hybrid model or even teaching remotely from school will result in a decrease in the quality of instruction:
Currently, teachers are delivering instruction to their entire classes remotely effectively using the remote platforms provided. To return to a hybrid instruction whereby teachers are somehow to provide meaningful instruction simultaneously to the individuals in front of them and the remaining individuals on a screen will necessarily result in a reduction in overall instruction per week as well as inequity in assessment.
While parents and students may desire a return to instruction as they once knew it, the instruction they seek is not possible under the pandemic even if the students are physically are in school:
Due to social distancing requirements as well as the hybrid structure, students will receive instruction via an electronic device whether attending in person or remotely. Instead, the difference will be the need to sit in classrooms with the windows wide open during the winter and with masks on their faces, making it far more difficult for them to concentrate. Access to bathroom facilities and food and drink, easily accessible at home, will be significantly limited and not available, respectively, per CDC guidelines.
There is no socializing in the hallways or at lunch or via extra-curricular activities in the building.
Teachers will need to wear masks inside their classrooms and clarity will be sacrificed whereas masks are unnecessary with teachers providing instruction from home.
Microphone feedback in virtual classrooms makes it so that students will not be able to have their device microphones on while in class, preventing them from participating with any clarity to be heard by at least half of the class attending remotely.
Further, environmental noise in school will make hearing the teacher and students more difficult, as the teacher cannot wear a microphone since the students physically present will need to hear those participating remotely.
Many devices will not remain charged for the length of the school day, using up battery power to attend meets, and there aren’t enough outlets with sufficient social distancing to allow them to plug in their devices while they work throughout the day. Further, there will be students who arrive to school without their device or a fully-charged device despite instruction to do so. Given the large number of devices loaned out to students, this will leave students who arrive without their device without the ability to “attend” class from school, as social distancing prevents sharing of devices.
Such technological issues will be further complicated by individual 504 and IEP plans which require specialized technology.
Breakout rooms or student-centric learning, such as small-group work or paired work, cannot take place in person within the confines of social distancing as well as the inability to have multiple microphones on in class, as can be easily facilitated all remotely.
Given the restrictions on social distancing, travel to and from classes as well as the down time to provide for disinfecting of the classroom from the prior period will delay classes, providing less instructional time than currently provided under remote instruction.
Lag time and buffering, along with the possibility of full shutdown, is far more likely with every teacher and every student in each classroom in the school logging on to the WIFI vs. an individual teacher’s and student’s WIFI capabilities. A reasoned approach would be to provide in-school access to remote learning only for those students who do not have access to reliable WIFI service.
Teachers are currently teaching each day, with few absences because they are managing effectively to teach notwithstanding their illnesses or those of their family or appointments. A return to school will mean greater absences in a period when substitute teachers are not available, which was already a serious problem.
As per our District’s communication yesterday, buildings will be open next Monday for teaching purposes on a voluntary basis. SOMEA strongly advises staff not to voluntarily report to the buildings until the walkthroughs are finished. We are still waiting for Central Office for those schedules.
We were also directed to go back to our tour of duty by November 9th. Please watch the Board Meeting this coming Monday as there should be forthcoming information about opening the schools. If you have any concerns, please feel free to speak up at the meeting. Safety and the integrity of instruction are our priorities, please let them know how to best address them.