The New Jersey Work Environment Council (NJWEC) received the 2020 Hero Award from the national Healthy Schools Network for its contributions to the national conversation on student and worker safety in the midst of the COVID pandemic. NJWEC is a longtime NJEA partner, ensuring that NJEA members and their students are working in safe and healthy school environments.
Debra Coyle McFadden, the executive director of NJWEC, accepted the award on behalf of the organization.
NJWEC provides NJEA and its local associations staff expertise, research, testing, training, and on-the-ground support when potentially unhealthy and unsafe conditions emerge or are suspected.
Claire Barnett, the executive director and one of the founders of the Healthy Schools Network, singled out NJWEC’s National Call to Action: The Pandemic v. Schools, a report that called for a state and national strategy on the safe reopening of schools in light of the COVID pandemic, rather than a piecemeal district-by-district strategy.
“We named them a national healthy schools hero because of their great work on the pandemic report, which really contributed to informing and elevating a new national dialog, bringing together the interests of children, the interests of labor, the interest about the buildings, and the interest about the occupants,” said Barnett.
Dr. Chip Halverson, a board member and past president of the Healthy Schools Network noted Coyle McFadden’s and NJWEC’s long history of advocacy for safe and healthy working and learning environments. Halverson, now a physician in Oregon, founded the NEA Healthy Schools Caucus when he was an educator.
“This is important work that never gets done unless we have people willing to do it,” Halverson said. “Thank you on behalf of the Healthy Schools Network for your work and your participation.”
NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Steve Beatty congratulated NJWEC and honored its important role in public education in New Jersey. He also noted the historic long-standing relationship between organized labor and public health.
“Not only at the NJEA level, but as the father of two girls who attend public schools and the husband of a public school teacher, I know the challenges we face and the work that’s been done here is integral to our entire mission,” Beatty said. “What I’ve witnessed these last 10 months and even longer than that is that our communities, our counties, our states are all full of heroes—and WEC stands on that pantheon, truly deserving of this national Healthy Schools Network Hero Award. Without their work and their expertise, we could not accomplish what we have.”
As she thanked the Healthy Schools Network for the award, Coyle McFadden placed the work of NJWEC in context, providing a lengthy list of state and national organizational allies in the fight against COVID, as well as individual NJWEC staff member.
“Along with our allies in the COSH [Council for Safety and Health Network] movement, we’ve spent the last 10 months in the battle against COVID,” Coyle McFadden said.
Coyle McFadden noted that NJWEC’s work with its allies led to Gov. Phil Murphy signing Executive Order (EO) 192, which she described as “one of the strongest worker rights EOs to be issued in the country.” She added that NJWEC and the Rutgers Labor Education Center have conducted 37 weekly COVID webinars titled “Saving Lives, Protecting Workers.” The webinars, which are ongoing, have had over 4,000 participants so far.
“We’ve built an online community where diverse voices gather weekly to discuss COVID,” Coyle McFadden said.
Coyle McFadden said that NJWEC has fielded over 150 COVID technical assistance requests from workers, labor organizations and community members. She said that of those requests, more than 100 were from teachers, school staff, parents and community members concerned for their local schools. NJWEC has also trained more than 300 workers on COVID-prevention and awareness.
Coyle McFadden pointed out that NJWEC’s work began more than two decades ago under its first executive director, Rick Engler. NJWEC and NJEA have been partnering for nearly 20 years to address school hazards and make safer learning environments for teachers, staff and students.
“COVID simply raised the ante on this work,” Coyle McFadden said. “Poor indoor air quality can cause illness that makes it harder to teach and to learn—and, on average, New Jersey’s 2,500 school buildings are 50 years old. School buildings are up to four times more densely populated than office buildings. Common school problems of over-crowding and deferred maintenance contribute to unhealthy schools. COVID multiplies the severity and the urgency of addressing these problems.”
Coyle McFadden said that she hopes school infrastructure investment is a top priority for the Biden administration, because states cannot solve this crisis on their own.
“This work is only possible because of our partnership with NJEA,” Coyle McFadden said. “My sincere thanks for your unwavering commitment to President Marie Blistan, Vice President and WEC Board Member Sean Spiller, and Secretary-Treasurer Steve Beatty.”
She also thanked Allen Barkkume who made significant contributions to the National Call to Action: The Pandemic v. Schools report. In addition, she thanked the team of industrial hygienists Barkkume leads that includes Dave Newman, Dorothy Wigmore, Peter Dooley, Tamara McNair, Brian Reyes, Uday Singh and Pam Susi. She singled out Heather Sorge, WEC’s Healthy Schools Now organizer, as the driving force behind the national call to action report.
Coyle McFadden also thanked the WEC Board of Directors, and its current president, Jim Young. She said that Young, who was previously a WEC staffer, steered WEC and NJEA on their joint path when, nearly 20 years ago, he had a meeting with NJEA UniServ field reps Norm Danzig and John Ropars.
NJEA President Marie Blistan lauded the work of NJWEC and its partners “to make things right, to right the ship, to undo the wrongs, to stop the inequities, and to stop the discrimination.” She pointed out that those on the call to witness NJWEC’s receipt of the award, were indeed all heroes for safe and healthy school and work environments.
“I want to thank everyone on this call,” Blistan said. “It’s a real tribute to the work that good people do when they put their minds to it to make a difference in the world.”