District flip-flops, agrees to remain virtual for time being

Columbia High School, above, will remain closed to students for the time being.

MAPLEWOOD & SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange–Maplewood School District is returning to all-virtual instruction indefinitely, the district announced in a statement on Feb. 15. The decision came just hours after the release of a district announcement that Phase 3 of its hybrid learning reopening plan would continue on April 19, a move forward with the current phase of the plan that offers some in-person instruction. The reason for the closure, according to the district, is disagreements over workspaces with the South Orange–Maplewood Education Association.

On Jan. 17, the SOMEA and SOMSD signed an agreement that would allow teachers who requested to work from home to do so and would provide alternate classroom space to any teacher whose current classroom’s ventilation system was not yet deemed safe in the COVID-19 restricted guidelines. Hybrid instruction began the week of Feb. 8, with schools being closed on Feb. 9 because of inclement weather and Feb. 12 and Feb. 15 for winter recess.

“As per the community reopening update of only a few hours ago, the district was making progress in its Phase 3 reopening with no evidence of in-school transmission. We felt that the sidebar agreement with SOMEA was working as intended,” the district’s statement, which was posted on its website, read. “Notably, the initial walk-throughs resulted in agreement on numerous classrooms as being fit for use. Ultimately, it appears that disagreement over 34 workspaces, more than a dozen of which were brought to our attention as recently as Saturday, has led to this reaction.”

Due to the lack of necessary faculty to begin hybrid learning, the district will remain all-virtual. According to the statement, buildings will remain closed indefinitely pending discussion with SOMEA representatives and labor counsel on remedies to resume reopening. Central office staff will also work remotely.

In a statement of its own, the SOMEA said virtual learning will be happening at least through March 15. As for reasons to remain virtual, SOMEA cited ventilation systems, loss of preparation time and the failure to accommodate teachers who requested to work from home.

“Despite SOMEA’s extensive good-faith efforts to deliver hybrid instruction to targeted student populations while mitigating the real dangers to the safety and well-being of members and students and its willingness to proceed without access to vaccines, the district is not capable of and not willing to comply with its agreement to do so,” the SOMEA statement, posted on Facebook on Feb. 15, read. “Indeed, that the district never intended to comply with the agreement is perhaps best evidenced by the clear directive central office administration sent to its building administrators to disregard the express terms of the agreement. Specifically, while the district agreed that the only classrooms fit for use in the midst of an airborne contagion pandemic are those with working motors/blowers capable of maintaining adequate ventilation and room temperatures of 68-79 degrees with open windows, central office administration directed building administrators to place staff and students in rooms meeting only one of these requirements.”

The SOMEA statement also states that the district has either failed to process teachers’ requests to work from home or denied them; those staff members have been using sick days.

“The district has prioritized punishing members for having such medical conditions by forcing them to exhaust sick leave and not teach when they desperately desire to do so over remote delivery of instruction to our students,” the statement said. “By working remotely as a membership, SOMEA seeks to prioritize instruction for each and every student.”

In the statement, the union offered to meet with the district administration, acknowledging that there are certain at-risk groups in the student population that need in-person instruction as soon as possible.

“We offer to meet with district administration immediately to develop a specific plan with agreed-upon room usage and cohort schedules to allow those students to continue hybrid instruction during this remote instructional period consistent with the agreement,” the SOMEA statement read. “Additionally, as we have asked our members, we would also like to ask all community stakeholders to request in writing from our elected officials that they expedite the approval of funds from the bond to upgrade the ventilation of all our buildings.”

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