Dr. Chrissi Miles of NJEA’s Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division testified on Wednesday, July 22 before the Assembly Education Committee to address the challenges and risks of too quickly opening schools for in-person instruction while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.

Here is her full testimony:

NJEA Testimony to Assembly Education Committee

Dr. Christine Miles, New Jersey Education Association

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Thank you Chairwoman Lampitt and members of the Assembly Education Committee for the opportunity to testify on behalf of the New Jersey Education Association’s 200,000 members serving students from pre-K through higher education.

My name is Dr. Christine Miles and I am an Associate Director of Professional Development and Instructional Issues with NJEA. My past experiences include serving as a high school English Teacher, building-based administrator, curriculum supervisor, and international consultant focusing on curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  

As a former school administrator, I was trained to put a school on complete lockdown if a weapon was brought into the building because it could cause significant harm or death. In the event that a weapon was in the building, you do everything in your capability to isolate and contain the threat in order to protect the lives of students, staff, and the entire community.

We never explored ways to just work around a threat in the building to simply reduce risk. We didn’t require bulletproof vests for students and staff to lessen the risk. We didn’t tell students and staff to simply keep their distance from a threat. We neutralize the dangerous situation by removing the threat from the picture first.

As parents, we would NEVER knowingly send our children to school when a credible threat against human life is present. We don’t think, “oh, well my child won’t be a target, so they’ll be fine.” We drop everything, rush to school as quickly as humanly possible, and are there to protect our kids, the most valuable aspect of our lives.

As we consider what school reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic looks like we should stop asking if we want brick and mortar schools to reopen. Obviously, EVERYONE wants schools to reopen as soon as possible. It’s not about dates; it’s about data. The true question we need to be asking and seeking answers to is “how, when, and under what conditions can schools open safely so as to not endanger the lives of our beloved students, their caregivers, and each community’s educators”?

Nationally, brick and mortar school reopening has become a highly politicized discussion. Children and school staff are not and can not be political kickballs on the COVID-19 playground. When our national government states that “Science should not stand in the way of reopening schools,” our educators know that pathogens don’t care about politics. Science MUST lead the way on reopening schools safely.

In March, Governor Murphy recognized the impending threat COVID-19 posed when he closed school buildings and transitioned the state to remote learning, saving countless lives in the process. These decisions were driven by science and a moral imperative to preserve human life. NJEA supported the use of scientifically driven decision making then, and implores the state to rely on scientific data in any reopening plan now.

But, what does the science and empirical research* say about reopening schools safely? At a minimum, this requires:  

  • Strict physical distancing of at least 6 feet in all classrooms, on transportation, and in all shared indoor and outdoor spaces – This will require a reduction of one half to one third of the student population being present on a given school day.
  • Universal masking requirements for all, unless medical reasoning prohibits. When masking cannot occur, other protective measures must be in place.
  • Optimally functioning HVAC systems, filtration, and supplemental air cleaning must be maintained; System performance must be verified regularly; Failing systems, which federal watchdogs estimate are present in 41% of school districts nationwide, will create super spreader events by moving virus particles around the room, infecting greater numbers of students and staff. School buildings throughout the state of NJ are aging, including those built over 100 years ago. As reported by the Education Law Center, we know from NJDOE data that serious ventilation issues are documented throughout a significant number of School Development Authority district buildings. Following a 2016 health and safety survey of SDA districts, 429 repair applications were submitted, 75% of which were related to faulty heating and ventilation. NJDOE approved funding for 15 repair projects within 4 districts. 2 of the approved projects addressed repairing unsafe ventilation systems.
  • Increased hygiene protocols and bathroom safety; School bathrooms must continually operate exhaust fans and seat lids must be installed and remain closed to prevent COVID-19 aerosol spray when flushing; touchless sensors must be in place for faucets, soap dispensers, and disposable towels. Hand dryers must be disabled. Additional hand sanitizing and hand washing stations must be installed throughout the building.
  • In order to effectively kill virus germs, appropriate disinfectants must remain “glistening wet” for the entire contact time, which is generally 5-10 minutes. Otherwise, resistant germs will continue to remain and grow. Stringent cleaning protocols and enhanced disinfection for high-touch surfaces must be established and maintained; Products that are safe for use in children and adults’ presence must be used.
  • Hyper-focused attention on student and staff mental health is imperative; If the parameters required to maintain health and safety create greater trauma to students and staff, we will have made no progress.

The science is there and we know what must occur, yet the costs to bring our school buildings to an adequate level of safety for students and staff are astronomical. S-2698 has been introduced in the Senate and will assist districts with state-level procurement of PPE and protective goods and services. We hope, Chairwoman, that an Assembly version of the bill will move swiftly through this committee. 

If we reopen brick and mortar school buildings before it is safe to do so, we are not merely placing an unacceptable physical, mental, emotional, and financial burden on our districts, educators, and support staff. We are also putting a significantly traumatic and irreversible burden on our children.

It is inevitable that adults and children entering school buildings will be asymptomatic; It is inevitable adults and children will become infected; and, it is inevitable that people will die.

We cannot knowingly place this burden ON ANYONE and allow them to carry that weight throughout the remainder of their lives.

As a state and nation, step one is neutralize the threat. We must test, isolate, and contact trace. There can be no step 2, much less steps 5 – 6 – 7 until we get step 1 right. If brick and mortar school reopening cannot be done responsibly, it must be done remotely. Thank you.

*Enclosed:

 

 

 

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