NJEA response to governors’ statement

Earlier today, Gov. Phil  Murphy and six other Northeast governors released a statement minimizing the risk associated with in-person instruction in this time of rapidly rising COVID cases in the region.

NJEA’s officers, President Marie Blistan, Vice President Sean M. Spiller and Secretary-Treasurer Steve Beatty released this statement:

“We are dismayed that Gov. Murphy and the governors of six other states have downplayed the danger posed to students and school staff participating in in-person instruction during the current COVID-19 surge in our region.

“As of Nov. 14, five out of six zones in New Jersey had a CALI rating of ‘high.’ That CALI score will likely rise to ‘very high’ as COVID cases are rising by the hour, and the total number of cases in New Jersey has increased by 19,000 in the six days since that data was released. School data reported by the state is misleading at best because it does not include cases where students or staff are infected with COVID during school-related activities such as sports and other extracurricular programs. School buildings and school-related activities are far more dangerous than the state’s data indicate.

“The coming holiday season, where travel and gatherings are inevitable, will undoubtedly make the situation even worse. This is no time to minimize or downplay the risks faced by our students and the educators who have worked so hard for the last eight months to keep New Jersey’s children safe, healthy and learning.

“Our members want nothing more than a return to normalcy, where we can safely interact with our students in a normal school environment. But this is not a normal environment. It is a global pandemic.  And far too many of our schools are not designed or equipped to be safe under these extraordinary circumstances. From inadequate ventilation, to lack of room for social distancing, to lack of staff to ensure small class sizes, to lack of PPE and safety precautions, to student noncompliance with required safety protocols, there are too many schools unable to provide the ‘appropriate protections’ required for safe in-person learning.

“That is why we continue to see COVID outbreaks in our public schools. That is why we continue to see classes, grades and entire buildings disrupted when students and staff come into contact with infected individuals. That is why many educators and school administrators are bravely advocating for remote education in their districts to better protect the health of their students, their colleagues and their communities, including their students’ families, many of which include vulnerable individuals. Those educators have our full support as they advocate to put health and safety first.

“In particular, we know that students and staff of color are at greater risk. Additionally, pregnant women are considered at high risk as well, a significant concern in a profession that is more than three-quarters female.

“Like working educators, medical experts recognize the risks posed by insisting on in-person education at this particular moment in the current pandemic. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Policy Lab, which previously was advising districts and schools on how to safely reopen, is now calling for remote education for all schools, saying, ‘Until now, protocols that reopened schools have been successful in preventing linked in-school transmission. Unfortunately, overall infection rates in children are rising in many areas of the country. At Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, PCR test positivity rates this past weekend surpassed 15%, a number that nearly doubled in a week.’

“Likewise, the CDC recently changed the guidance on its website, which has encouraged in-person schooling but now says, ‘the body of evidence is growing that children of all ages are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection and contrary to early reports might play a role in transmission.’

“We call on Gov. Murphy and his fellow governors in our region to be led by the medical experts who are calling for cautious and careful approaches to schooling at this time. They should be prioritizing the health and safety of students and staff rather than repeating questionable assertions about the safety of in-person instruction that run counter to what those medical experts now say. Those assertions are not in line with the real-world situation in our schools where the number of infected students and staff is growing daily.

“We agree wholeheartedly that in-person learning is the best possible scenario for all children, but only when that is safe. In too many places, it is simply not safe now. The more responsibly we act today, as the virus is surging out of control, the more quickly we will be able to return to that ideal situation without putting our children, our educators and our communities at even greater risk.”