Without a doubt we are in a time like no other. The human toll of this pandemic will shape us for more than a generation. But as NJEA members, you’ve done what you can always be counted on to do—you have risen to meet the moment.

It’s painful to know that we will not see our students in our school buildings again this year. It’s heartbreaking that this year’s seniors are missing the rituals that generations before them took for granted: proms, senior trips, yearbook signings, graduation ceremonies and so much more. But for students at all levels, there are losses and missed once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that cannot be recaptured, despite our efforts to make the best of a difficult situation.

In the midst of this loss, you have helped to soften the blow and provide a sense of routine and familiarity to your students. Almost overnight, you reconfigured everything you do while continuing to provide essential services, such as feeding students and looking after their social and emotional well-being. Parents appreciate what you’ve done and applaud your everyday acts of heroism. In fact, in a national survey conducted in April, the National Education Association found that 88% of parents approve of the job you are doing in the midst of the pandemic. More than half responded that they strongly approve of the job you’re doing.

Compounding the physical and emotional toll of the pandemic is its financial impact. Levels of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression fill everyone from those in the middle class to those for whom economic insecurity is nothing new, with dread and anxiety. NJEA members are not immune from this financial anxiety as school districts seek to balance their budgets in the midst of losses in state aid and the uncertainty of federal assistance.

It might seem, in these troubled times, that relief from the crushing burden of Ch. 78 health insurance payroll deductions would be unattainable. But it’s not! Thanks to S-2273, which passed in the state Senate on March 19, relief is closer than ever. Under the bill, which is strongly supported by NJEA, NJEA members and school districts would save a combined $1 billion a year. And S-2273 didn’t just pass; it passed unanimously, 34-0. When every Democrat and every Republican agree on a plan to lower health care costs while preserving access to high-quality health care for school employees—and that plan has the full support of NJEA—something truly remarkable has happened.

As the world seems more insecure, greater job security, fairness and professional dignity is vital for the unsung heroes of New Jersey’s public schools: the educational support professionals (ESPS) who drive the buses, prepare the meals, maintain school facilities, assist in the classrooms and keep the offices running, among countless other key roles. They helped create the nation’s best schools. During this pandemic, they’ve helped ensure the safety and welfare of students. When we eventually return to our school buildings, their role will be more critical than ever.

NJEA’s advocacy for ESPs due-process rights, which other public employees take for granted, has never wavered. And contracts, once signed, must be honored. NJEA has been fighting for job justice measures like these for ESPs for even longer than it has been fighting for Ch. 78 relief, and victory is on the horizon there as well.

On the same day it passed Ch. 78 relief, the Senate passed two job justice bills: S-993 by a vote of 31-3 and S-1928 by a vote of 32-2.  S-993 ensures due-process rights for ESPs and S-1928 provides protections for ESPs against the subcontracting of their work.

The governor has repeatedly and publicly pledged his support for both Ch. 78 relief and job justice for ESPs. It’s time for the Assembly to move these bills to his desk. We hope that by the time you read this Final Exam column, the Assembly will have done just that. If so, be sure to thank your Assembly members. If not, visit actioncenter.njea.org to write to your Assembly members urging them honor the work of ESPs and provide health insurance relief to both taxpayers and educators.

It’s the right thing for educators. It’s the right thing for our schools. It’s the right thing for New Jersey.

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