ECEA expresses opposition to reopening school buildings this fall

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Essex County Education Association President Anthony Rosamilia, in collaboration with local teachers union presidents across the county, penned a letter to interim Executive County Superintendent Joseph Zarra and the county’s legislators expressing ECEA’s opposition to reopening school buildings this fall.

“Out of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States, Essex County, N.J., ranks in the top 10 nationally for the number of COVID-19 deaths. We mourn for the more than 2,000 residents who lost their lives and recognize that each one represents a family that will never be the same. As president of the Essex County Education Association, I represent more than 12,000 educators across the county and for us the danger that COVID-19 presents is all too real,” Rosamilia wrote. “For the last several weeks our members have been faithfully participating in reopening committees in our districts. We would like nothing more than to return to our classrooms and offices to educate our students in a safe environment. However, it is clear that the science supports that reopening school buildings this fall is unsafe.

“Therefore, the Essex County Education Association cannot, in good faith, support the reopening of public schools for in-person instruction in September. Simply put, despite the best of intentions and planning, the risk to the health and safety of our students and staff is too high,” the letter continued.

Among reasons not to reopen schools, Rosamilia pointed out that classrooms are exactly the type of enclosed spaces that health experts from the N.J. Department of Health and the World Health Organization say can foster the spread of COVID-19. According to Rosamilia, many school buildings throughout the county have chronic problems with HVAC systems that could exacerbate this issue. He also questions whether students will be able to comply with all safety rules.

“Small children are not developmentally able to understand or undertake social distancing. It will be an impossible task to keep them apart,” he wrote. “As educators, we are problem solvers and inherently optimistic. Just try to teach a lesson on Halloween and you will see optimism personified. But this is not a challenge to be overcome, it is an impossibility. If we open buildings for in-person instruction, make no mistake, students will not maintain social distance and the results may be deadly. For some of our students, compliance with rules is often difficult. Therefore, regardless of age level, the maintenance of safety protocols is utterly unrealistic.

“We understand that parents want to resume a sense of normalcy for their children. We want that too. But we all need to understand the new realities of classrooms in the age of COVID,” he continued. “As a teacher for the last 24 years I can attest that educators have spent the last decade engaged in an effort to emphasize the social and emotional development of our students. Simply put, we understand now more than ever that for students to learn they must feel safe, welcome and part of the community. How exactly will they do that with desks spaced 6 feet apart? How will they feel as they are constantly reminded to stay apart from their friends, and to not touch their masks, and to not share supplies and keep to their plexiglass “personal space” in the classroom? How will that work exactly with kindergarteners?

“The simple gesture of a reassuring smile or fist bump will vanish,” he continued. “Going to the bathroom will now require the careful orchestration and logistics of an air traffic controller at Newark Airport. Precious instructional time will be lost to monitor sanitizing and compliance to social distancing and mask wearing. Socially and emotionally every single person — both students and adults — present in these buildings under these conditions will be totally stressed out all the time. Yet, even with all these draconian measures, there is still no guarantee that students will be safe from COVID-19.

Rosamilia acknowledges the burden that keeping schools closed can place on families, but feels that opening and then being forced to close suddenly because of COVID transmission rates would create an even greater disturbance.

“We are asking that you recognize the obvious, that it is totally unrealistic to expect that we can safely open our schools for in-person instruction in September,” Rosamilia said. “By declaring a remote start for school in September now, this will provide parents time to arrange for childcare and educators to better prepare for remote instruction. Time though, is of the essence. Districts are wasting precious weeks creating plans with convoluted schedules and Plexiglas dividers that are plainly unworkable. Staffing these plans will prove to be impossible. We had a severe substitute shortage before the pandemic. Many educators are preparing to leave the profession rather than risk their lives in buildings that they know cannot be made safe over the next six weeks.

“Ultimately, once cases of COVID start showing up — and they will — these plans fall apart like a house of cards. Where do districts, families and students end up in that case? Right back in remote learning anyway, but without the benefit of planning and preparation because we were too busy figuring out who is going to be taking temperatures and sanitizing every surface each day,” he continued, adding that districts should instead be focusing on closing the digital divide. “We are simply asking that as leaders you take the next step and support a remote start to the year so that during this unprecedented crisis we can continue to deliver the best quality education that made N.J. schools the best in the nation.”

In addition to Rosamilia, who is also president of the Livingston Education Association, the following leaders signed the letter: Laura Brutman, Jaime Chavkin and Kristin Gann, co-presidents of the Essex Fells Education Association; Michael Byock, president of the Irvington Education Association; Christopher Cannella, president of the Cedar Grove Education Association; Jarrod Cappello and Jody Dolce, co-presidents of the West Essex Regional Education Association; Lisa Catanzarite, president of the Orange Education Association; Michele Cristantiello, president of the Education Association of Nutley; Elaine Elliott, president of the Newark Teachers’ Association; Matthew Giordano, president of the Bloomfield Education Association; Lois Infanger, president of the Millburn Education Association; Rocio Lopez, president of the South Orange–Maplewood Education Association; Mark Maniscalco, president of the West Orange Education Association; James McDaniel, president of the East Orange Resource Professionals Association; James McIntyre, president of the Caldwell–West Caldwell Education Association; Michael Mignone, president of the Belleville Education Association; Dawn Nichol-Manning, president of the East Orange Education Association; Frank Pane, president of the Roseland Education Association; Thomas Patierno, president of the Essex County Vocational and Technical Education Association; Alice Peters and MaryLynn Savio, co-presidents of the Glen Ridge Education Association; Petal Robertson, president of the Montclair Education Association; Kimberly Scott-Hayden, president of the East Orange Service and Maintenance Association; Christopher Tamburro, president of the Verona Education Association; and Jennifer Wien, president of the East Orange Charter School Education Association.