By Patrick Rumaker, NJEA Review editor
Editor’s note: This edition of the Review went to press on Aug. 19. Much will have changed between that date and the first day of school and may affect certain details in this article.
The last six months have been the most difficult months in nearly every NJEA member’s career. In addition to the personal challenges of navigating a global pandemic and your concern for the health and well-being of your families and loved ones, the profession has been turned upside down. In a matter of days—and in some cases, in a matter of hours—you had to completely reinvent our work.
For teachers and paraprofessionals, it was finding ways to reach their students and continue instruction. Those concerns cast a spotlight on the wide digital divide, where better-resourced schools and communities were able to more quickly reconnect with students electronically, but reconnecting with all students in underserved communities proved daunting. Some students became unreachable when school buildings closed, leaving staff scrambling to deliver instructional packets and perhaps connect by telephone or a socially distant knock on a door. For students with special needs the challenge to recreate needed services safely during a pandemic was particularly acute.
For educational support professionals (ESPs), the fear of layoffs loomed large from the day in March when school buildings first closed. Nonetheless, ESPs cleaned, sanitized and maintained buildings, prepared and distributed meals, delivered instructional packets and sorted student work when the packets were returned. They continued meeting office administrative responsibilities from kitchen tables, figured out how to keep attendance records when students weren’t physically coming to school, tracked down students who were not “in attendance,” maintained building security, and performed the hundreds of other job responsibilities that keep a school running even when school is being run from the homes of staff members.
From the stories sent in to NJEA by members, it was clear the creativity of teachers and ESPs was in overdrive. A flood of ideas from members arrived at NJEA for instruction, connection, ways to honor graduating seniors and retiring staff, retooled NJEA Pride in Public Education grants to meet community needs, food distribution, and more. So many photos and stories came in that NJEA created a special website to make these ideas more widely available: njeatogether.org.
Despite the joy that creativity can bring, members approached this new and unexpected reality with a great deal of sadness. We know what is lost when we cannot be with our students in person. We know the power of personal relationships, group collaboration, peer interaction and one-on-one help when students are struggling. None of those things can be re-created remotely as well as they can be done in person. We didn’t enter education to see our students remotely through screens or to communicate with them by email.
Work was re-imagined for NJEA leaders and staff as well, with nearly all working from home except for the staff who maintain the headquarters building in Trenton, handle mail, and run the print shop. Accounting Department staff worked primarily from home but came into the building to handle payroll and other confidential matters that cannot be administered from a remote location. Otherwise, staff from both the field offices and the headquarters building used new tools but provided the same extensive support and service as always as we all navigated unfamiliar terrain together.
NJEA President Marie Blistan, NJEA Vice President Sean M. Spiller and NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Steve Beatty didn’t miss a beat—continuing to represent and fight for members from home or for socially distant public events. In fact, it was as the beginning of the shutdown that legislation providing Ch. 78 relief, due-process rights, and protection against anti-privatization passed in the Senate, followed by its passage in the Assembly in June. (See pages 45-60 for more on this legislation.)
With schools at the heart of nationwide and statewide discussions about COVID-19, it was not uncommon to see Blistan, Spiller or Beatty interviewed for news programs or participating in panel discussions about the impact of COVID-19 on members, students, families and communities.
NJEA Executive Committee meetings, Delegate Assembly meetings, other committee meetings moved onto WebEx and Zoom platforms. Local, county, and statewide leaders continued to handle the business of the association, nearly all of them balancing their association responsibilities with their work in the school districts where they are employed. Local presidents in particular felt the weight of leadership in these un-precedented times, relying more than ever on the expert advice and support of UniServ field reps, their assistants in field offices, and NJEA staff in its various divisions.
The “doorstep service” UniServ field reps are known for moved to laptops, tablets, telephones and seemingly endless online meetings. Field reps were called on to deal with an avalanche working conditions issues and questionable district and school board practices never imagined in pre-COVID times. They received calls from members, especially those in high risk groups who lived with family member in high risk group, who feared the consequences not reporting to their schools if they reopened. Others called to inquire about early retirement.
This in addition to assisting locals with negotiations, contract enforcement, grievance adjudication, arbitrations, and all that comes with being the face of NJEA for most members at the local and county levels—but working out ways to provide all of these services remotely.
The questions raised when school buildings closed, such as “How will teachers and staff be evaluated?” “Will statewide standardized tests be administered?” “How should students be graded?” “When and how should schools reopen?” among dozens of others, landed primarily, but not solely, in the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE). The NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division (PDII), tasked with monitoring the NJDOE, instituted weekly online meetings to advise NJEA staff and officers on guidance from the department and making recommendations.
Both UniServ field reps and the PDII Division relied on the legal counsel of NJEA’s Member Rights office and Research and Economic Services Division staff for assistance in interpreting guidance and broadcasts from the NJDOE.
When it became clear that conferences and other large in-person meetings would not be permitted over the summer, PDII staff moved its Radical Imagination SUMMIT for Educators (RISE) from a physical space to Zoom. Over 200 members participated.
The annual Jack Bertolino Summer Leadership Conference (SLC), primarily administered by the NJEA Organizing Division and the NJEA Leadership Committee, also moved to a Zoom platform. It provided, to the greatest extent possible, many of the same multiday leadership training programs offered in person.
Early in the planning process for SLC, both staff and the Leadership Committee wondered if members—after having spent three months educating students online would have an appetite for spending time during the summer looking at their screens. There was no need for worry. More than 1,800 members registered for SLC, and they attended multiple workshops while there—leading to more 2,200 workshop participants and 4,750 minicourse participants over the four days.
This bodes well for another NJEA program that comes primarily from the PDII Division and overseen by the NJEA Convention Committee: the NJEA Convention. The association’s largest all-member event and the largest professional development event of its kind in the world, will be held online instead of in Atlantic City. (See Page 17.)
The shift to so much of NJEA’s work, and the work of local and county association, to online formats required re-branding that required the creativity of the graphic artists in NJEA’s Communication’s Division.
All of NJEA’s major initiatives, including Pride in Public Education, NJEA FAST, the NJEA Priority Schools Initiative, the NJEA Teacher Leader Academy, the NJEA REAL Movement, the NJEA Members of Color Network, the NJEA Early Career Network, and the NJEA Patriots’ Alliance and others moved their operations online. PRIDE grants, as noted earlier, were retooled to enable grants to be used for COVID-related community service projects.
COVID-19 was not the only news this year to shake the nation. The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor led staff and members to ache to be together to talk, to cry, to grieve, and to discern what we as educators and union members could do. Online platforms made it possible for members and staff to gather frequently on a large scale in a way that might not have been possible as often in person. Through the NJEA Members of Color Network, the NJEA REAL Movement, through “Movement Mondays,” “Freestyle Fridays,” and other events, the work of racial, social, economic and educational justice moved forward in an online space.
In every part of the association, NJEA’s associate staff—executive, confidential, program and administrative assistants, clerks, secretaries, operators, and office assistants—kept the association going as they recreated their jobs from home. Nothing would move forward at NJEA without their work.
In addition, balancing both their responsibilities to their school districts with their responsibilities as part-time NJEA employees, consultants from the UniServ, Professional Development, Communications, and Organizing divisions as well as retirees who work as Pension Consultants and Priority Schools Initiative Consultants took on assignments to ensure that members continued to be well represented and offered top-notch professional development.
How, when, and under what conditions can schools open safely so as to not endanger the lives of our beloved students?
So much has happened since mid-March, that it’s difficult to remember that when schools first closed, most of us had no idea that it would be the last time we saw our students in our buildings—that proms, graduation ceremonies, field days, spring sports, spelling bees, staff retirement parties, and countless other end-of-year traditions would be cancelled or re-imagined. Or that NJEA’s events all the way through to NJEA Convention eight months away at the time, would move online.
And now that we are in a new school year, things are far from normal. On Aug. 11, NJEA, the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, and the New Jersey Association of School Administrators issued a joint statement, calling for a remote school opening statewide. At the time, NJDOE guidance required some form of in-person instruction from the first day of school, leaving it up to individual school districts to determine how it would work.
“For months, New Jersey educators and administrators have been working tirelessly to find a way to safely bring students back into school buildings in September. Now, with less than a month remaining before schools are scheduled to reopen, it is time to reluctantly acknowledge that goal is simply not achievable,” the statement began. “Reopening schools for in-person instruction under the current conditions poses too great a risk to the health of students and schools staff.”
The statement called on Gov. Phil Murphy and the NJDOE to direct all schools to open remotely in September, saying, “The question of whether and when to reopen for in-person instruction is first and foremost a public health decision that cannot be left in the hands of nearly 600 individual school districts. The stakes are too high, and the consequences of a wrong decision are too grave.”
On Aug. 12, the governor stopped short of calling for a remote opening statewide but permitted districts to open remotely if they met certain criteria and had a plan to get back to in-person instruction. While school boards several districts had voted for a remote opening prior to the governor’s announcement, more did so soon after.
On Aug. 13, on op-ed from NJEA President Marie Blistan was published on njspotlight.com. Part of its title made it clear where Blistan and NJEA stood: “It’s Time to Admit It’s Just too Dangerous.”
“There is simply no level of planning we can do in the next four weeks, and no amount of caution and care we can practice in September, that will guarantee the safety of students and staff,” Blistan wrote. “And the scenarios we’ve had to contemplate—no group work, cafeterias closed, wearing masks and sheltering behind plexiglass unable to approach students for individual instruction—are so far removed from what existed before March that even if students come back to buildings, they will not be coming back to anything they will recognize as school. It will be an alien, intimidating experience.”
Despite the joy that creativity can bring, members approached this new and unexpected reality with a great deal of sadness.
While NJEA’s joint statement with NJPSA and NJASA stated categorically that the governor should require a remote opening statewide, from the start NJEA said that schools should reopen for in-person instruction only when it was safe to do so.
This was well articulated in NJEA’s testimony to the Assembly Education Committee delivered by Dr. Christine Miles, an associate director in the NJEA PDII Division, on July 22.
Herself a parent of two school-aged children, Miles told the committee, “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.”
Miles told the committee that science must lead the way on reopening schools safely.
“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,” Miles testified. “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?”
Miles enumerated what empirical research indicates would be required to keep the virus from spreading in schools. A daunting list of requirements that few, if any, schools could meet.
On Aug. 13, Asw. Mila Jasey (D-Essex) and Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), both members of the Assembly Education Committee, introduced A-4509, which would have required school districts to provide virtual or remote instruction for beginning of 2020-21 school year, but permit in-person delivery of certain special education services. It also would have permitted school districts to delay start of 2020-21 school year. It’s Senate companion, S-2809, was introduced by Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer).
As of press time, Aug. 19, that fate of A-4509/S2809, was not yet known.
But what is known is what NJEA’s president wrote on Aug. 13:
“Schools are going to be central to our success in navigating it,” Blistan wrote. “Until we can safely reopen buildings in person, it’s going to take exceptional effort and creativity to serve our students. NJEA members stand ready to do that.”