Closing in on a full year since New Jersey schools shuttered amid the arrival of COVID-19, the frustrations of both parents and educators have reached a fever pitch.

Montclair reached a new level of community tension on Tuesday as the superintendent of schools announced plans to sue the township’s teachers union over a refusal of elementary school teachers to return to building classrooms.

Ventilation at the township’s oldest school buildings has been the concern shared by the Montclair Education Association, but efforts to negotiate use of facilities with proper HVAC systems have not proven enough, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said in an open letter.

“If we maintain the status quo, no one prevails. Our staff is discouraged and defeated. Our parents are frustrated. There is a rift in the relationship between our community and our educators,” Ponds said. “When forced to make a decision between competing interests, I will always do what is best for our students.”

Recent data has shown support for the idea of low transmission of the virus during in-person school instruction.

“It's less likely for a child to get infected in the school setting than if they were just in the community,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a recent MSNBC interview. The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases referenced an updated CDC study recently published online.

“Accumulating data now suggest a path forward to maintain or return primarily or fully to in-person instructional delivery,” according to the research published by The Journal of the American Medical Association, which also noted “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

“Actions include taking steps to reduce community transmission and limiting school-related activities such as indoor sports practice or competition that could increase transmission risk,” the Jan. 26 research said, noting the continued importance of social distancing and mask wearing within schools.

Despite such research, there are other challenges in achieving a more unified approach to the return to classrooms around New Jersey.

“One of the factors that most people don’t understand is the lack of available staff to conduct schooling because of how COVID-19 has impacted families and individual staff members across the state,” Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said.

School closings and quarantines have a “domino effect,” Bozza said, as educators often teach out of their own community and have to balance the pandemic policies of their own district as well as whichever community in their own family might be enrolled.

A number of public protests have unfolded among communities in North and Central Jersey since December, as families have voiced frustration and anger by a lack of progress in returning to classrooms. Some are upset that their districts have remained on full-remote instruction, as new positive cases of coronavirus are reported and quarantine of close contacts is observed.

“I think the inconsistency from community to community has created problems because people can look across the border and see what’s happening that they may prefer, in-person attendance for example,” Bozza said.

He said the difficulty is that from the onset of COVID-19, Gov. Phil Murphy has left the decision of each district’s status to chief school administrators, who have had to consult with local health officials to make decisions based on local data.

“From the beginning of this pandemic we have insisted that the health and safety of students and staff must be the top priority. That has not changed. New Jersey has hundreds of school districts and thousands of school buildings. Each of them have different conditions and different challenges to overcome in order to be safe for in-person instruction,” New Jersey Education Association spokesman Steve Baker said in a written response to New Jersey 101.5 on Tuesday.

“Throughout this year and in every individual case, our focus has remained on the health and safety of students and staff,” Baker also said.

NJEA has been advocating for teachers to be added to the state’s active priority groups of those eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Edison has also delayed its switch from all-remote instruction to hybrid by a month, until March. There was a higher degree of positive cases and quarantine among staff than any time previously reported during the pandemic, according to a Jan. 27 update from the Superintendent of Schools.

Woodbridge, which has nearly 13,761 students, has given a similar timeline, offering that March would be the earliest the township returns to a mix of in-person instruction.

So far, protests by families who are fed up with the prolonged pandemic and its impact on a lack of in-person instruction at public schools have taken place in Wayne, Montclair, Marlboro, Old Bridge, and South Orange and Maplewood in recent weeks.

A “New Jersey Families for In-Person Learning” Facebook group had just over 660 people as of Tuesday.

Following the first winter storm of the year, the South Orange-Maplewood school district has switched to a hybrid schedule, after being remote all year. The plan had been pushed a few times, including from fall to January and then February.

Parents within the district, with roughly 7,300 students, have protested since the start of winter, as families had become desperate for some form of in-person instruction, voicing concern for the mental health of isolated, remote students.

South Orange-Maplewood schools had eight active cases for the week of Jan. 29, according to its COVID-19 Dashboard, as unveiled by South Orange-Maplewood Superintendent of Schools Ronald Taylor in preparation for the district’s move to a hybrid model of instruction.

In Middlesex County, Old Bridge had 300 newly confirmed cases and four new fatalities from COVID-19 in a week’s span from Jan. 20 through Jan. 27, according to the Middlesex County Department of Health.

As of Sunday, Old Bridge public schools reported 38 students and staff as positive cases, with another 15 cases “pending” and 79 quarantined.

A day earlier, roughly 50 Old Bridge parents and their children turned out for a Saturday rally, as reported by MyCentralJersey.com, holding signs and voicing support for a return to full, in-person instruction immediately.

In a reopening plan dated Jan. 11, the district said that the earliest that the general student population would be considered for a return to in-person instruction - in a hybrid model - would be March, as district officials want to see the township COVID-19 infection rates on a downward trend.

For the month of January, the Old Bridge school district reported 695 students and 348 staff had been impacted, as either positive cases or being in contact with a reported case.

Specific, specialized groups of students would be reevaluated for in-person services and instruction by Feb. 16.

East Brunswick public schools have been all-remote since November, with a planned return to hybrid instruction on Thursday.

That return had originally been planned for mid-January but was delayed “after careful consideration of the current COVID-19 infection and transmission rates,” according to a written update Jan. 14.

“I am asking every family to be transparent with us. If we all follow published health guidelines, report close contacts and illnesses (by calling or emailing your school nurse) and most importantly stay out of school if anyone in the family is presumed or diagnosed as a positive COVID then our shared commitment to safety is elevated,” East Brunswick Superintendent of Schools Victor Valeski said in a Jan. 26 update to the school community.

“Keeping ourselves and everyone around us safe is the only way we can successfully pull off the monumental task of returning our schools to full operation,” he also said.

In Wayne, parents rallied on Thursday, as reported by Patch and PIX11 News, over the township district's decision to extend remote learning into mid-February.

“There are no easy answers for many of the challenges and issues that have been
identified by the community,” Wayne Superintendent of Schools Mark Toback said in a Jan. 22 letter to the school community, noting that they had received “many emails regarding a variety of concerns about our schools continuing with virtual instruction through mid-February.”

“We recognize all voices, and we acknowledge the validity with almost every point made," he said. “How is it possible for any school district to simultaneously balance the differing needs of so many stakeholders during a crisis?”

In Monmouth County, a two-week delay of a return to hybrid instruction, pushed to the first week of February, also spurred a small protest among Marlboro parents on Jan. 23, as reported by News 12 New Jersey.

As parents continue to unload frustration with the continued impact of the pandemic at Board of Education meetings statewide and in community social media groups, the entire state has remained at a high level of COVID-19 Activity Level as of Tuesday.

The last time any region was not considered at a high level of coronavirus transmission was before Thanksgiving, when southeast New Jersey was “moderate” within the week ending Nov. 14.

“Remember this is a pandemic, it’s something that’s never been experienced in our lifetime, and schools are at the heart of trying to respond to communities,” Bozza said.

“So while it’s difficult, please be patient, please be supportive, where you can, because we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, as we see more vaccinations come,” Bozza said, adding getting educators on the priority list for vaccine doses is a key to returning to some element of normalcy.

New Jersey reported 824,028 total vaccine doses administered as of Tuesday.

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