Exclusive: NJ teachers union head says it's not safe to open schools in September
So you think your kids will be back in school and out of the house in early September?
The head of the state teachers union, one of New Jersey’s most powerful lobbying groups, with 200,000 members, and a prime supporter of Gov. Phil Murphy, is waving a strident and worrisome caution flag this week amid the widespread hope that districts can reopen public schools around Labor Day — less than seven weeks away.
In an exclusive interview, Marie Blistan, the president of the New Jersey Education Association, said the state’s nearly 3,000 public schools don’t have enough time to pull together the complicated web of health, academic, transportation and scheduling protocols to guarantee the safety of more than 1.5 million students, teachers, and staff from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“We are in a very tight time frame,” Blistan told The Record, NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey. “If we are looking to have schools open on the regular calendar, that’s not possible.”
Blistan said she decided to sound an alarm bell in New Jersey as she watched the recent dramatic increases in the spread of COVID-19 in Florida, Texas and Arizona — where officials encouraged people to resume their normal lives. She warned that returning to normalcy at schools across New Jersey around Labor Day — the traditional start of the academic year — could create a massive uptick in COVID-19 cases, and possibly deaths.
While the Murphy administration has never set a firm date on when schools might reopen and has left many decisions about how to structure classes to individual districts, the governor was not shy about his hope that in-person classes would resume in early fall, possibly mid-September.
Blistan's comments are the first sign that a normal school schedule is a mere pipe dream.
“Trying to hit school on a date on a calendar is not plausible and it’s not fair,” Blistan said. “We can’t just reopen schools because on the school calendar it says so. It is just not business as usual.”
Blistan’s blunt sentiments reflect a quiet but growing awareness among educators — and even students, parents and political leaders — that the deadly coronavirus, which has swept across America and killed nearly 137,000 people and infected 3.5 million more, may wipe out a portion of the upcoming academic year, not to mention a litany of other aspects of life. Her sentiments, however, also underscore a widening division about how best to fight COVID-19.
Residents split on whether to go back to class
For weeks, President Donald Trump has called on schools to gear up for classes by Labor Day. Trump has even threatened to withhold federal funding from any public school district that delays. That threat, however, is largely empty, since school funding comes mostly from state and local tax revenue.
In New Jersey, meanwhile, Murphy has not backed off his goal to start the school year in September.
On June 26, the Murphy administration released a 104-page report, titled "The Road Back," that offers instructions on how the state’s schools might resume classes, possibly as early as September. The report came as the governor encouraged restaurants to resume serving meals indoors.
Three days after the school’s report was released and amid rising concerns that the coronavirus was beginning to spread rapidly across many states that had relaxed their health rules, Murphy announced what he called a temporary pause in allowing restaurants to welcome diners indoors.
Some now feel that Murphy’s rethinking about restaurants could be a harbinger of more delays, especially for schools.
This week, after California’s two largest school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said they would not open their doors this fall and would educate students only through online classes, Murphy still stuck to his goal to reopen New Jersey’s schools. But he also raised his own caution flag.
"We still hope to be back to school, but we have to do it responsibly and we have to do it right. We're watching that very closely," Murphy said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” after learning of the changes in California.
Murphy's dilemma was reflected in a poll, released Thursday by Fairleigh Dickinson University, that showed New Jersey's residents almost evenly divided on whether schools should reopen or students should just continue with online classes. Forty-six percent of the state's residents wanted schools to open with the appropriate protective measures in place, the FDU survey found. Another 42 percent preferred a resumption of online learning until a COVID-19 treatment or vaccine becomes available.
Perhaps anticipating the greater use of online instruction, Murphy on Thursday announced plans to redirect state and federal funds — and raise additional money from philanthropy — to upgrade computer services for students across the state, especially in poor districts. Meeting with educators and political leaders in Irvington, Murphy pledged to “close the digital divide and equip students in need with personal device access and internet connectivity" for the coming academic year.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this week that he would allow schools to open only if the daily infection rate remains below 5 percent over a 14-day average in the surrounding region by the first week of August. “We’re not going to use our children as a litmus test, and we’re not going to put our children in a place where their health is in danger,” Cuomo said.
What concerns Cuomo and Murphy is the same series of questions that have shadowed the COVID-19 crisis since its dramatic outbreak in March: How far will the virus spread? How extensively will life change in America? How many will die?
With Labor Day approaching and many Americans turning their thoughts to school, the prospect of students and teachers in tightly packed classrooms that were never designed for social distancing now looms at the top of the list of worries.
Murphy said one of his chief concerns was a student passing the coronavirus to an older teacher or school employee — or perhaps bringing the virus home to a vulnerable grandparent.
“We are going to have to come back to it as we get closer,” Murphy’s spokesman Daniel Bryan told The Record, NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey.
New Jersey’s school administrators have been asked to compile plans on how to reopen by early August — or about four weeks before Labor Day. Such a tight deadline has many districts scrambling — a situation that Murphy is aware of.
“We feel some districts are going to be able to do some things that other districts can’t do,” Bryan said, suggesting that the state may not adopt a one-size-fits-all plan for school re-openings.
The Murphy administration embraced such an approach at the start of the tourist season at Jersey Shore beaches, with some towns and beaches opening before others. Schools may follow a similar plan. "A lot of this is going to be district by district,” Bryan said. “It’s a very long way of saying we’re still a long ways away.”
But the goal to reopen around Labor Day is hardly a slam-dunk. “We don’t know what Labor Day is going to look like," Bryan said. "We don’t know what mid-August looks like.”
Blistan shares the same worries.
Reopening school doors to students in September would essentially require a major redesign of how most schools are set up and organized.
For starters, desks in classrooms would have to be 6 feet apart. Students would not share books, pens, pencils, rulers or pieces of chalk.
And that's just the beginning. A variety of educators said in interviews that they have considered staggered schedules, with some students coming to class earlier in the day and others coming later. Another option would be to have students attend classes for a few days, then head home for online instruction.
Story continues below photo gallery
District administrators are also wrestling with how they might test students, teachers and staff for possible coronavirus infections. Another concern is how often testing should occur and who would administer the tests.
Then, if someone is infected, should the whole school go into a quarantine?
Adding to the dilemma are issues of how to bus students to school and feed them once they arrive. With nearly 40 percent of New Jersey’s students qualifying for federally financed breakfasts or lunches, this is no small concern.
Finally, there is the question of who will pay for — and find — enough facial masks and other protective gear for students and teachers.
None of these questions have been answered so far by New Jersey officials — certainly not in a way that would satisfy every school district.
Blistan, who spent nearly 30 years as a teacher, specializing in reading for special education students, said she plans to demand at least two masks for each student and teacher each day. She said she is especially worried for teachers who may have an underlying health condition, such as asthma or heart disease.
Blistan is not alone. A report from the Kaiser Family Foundation predicts that about one in four teachers — roughly 1.4 million across the United States — “have a condition that puts them at higher risk of serious illness from coronavirus.”
The New Jersey School Boards Association, which represents 584 public school districts and 75 charter schools, this week asked its members about challenges they face in reopening. In preliminary feedback, 52 percent cited problems obtaining enough masks and other protective equipment.
The School Boards Association has not yet joined the teachers union in calling for a delay in reopening schools. But the association’s deputy executive director, Frank Belluscio, did not discount that possibility.
Belluscio pointed to the association’s demand in May for Murphy to keep schools closed through the end of the academic year in June despite a decrease in COVID cases across the state. Murphy complied. Belluscio now says the association may ask the governor to hold off reopening schools if New Jersey’s COVID cases increase or schools are unable to guarantee student and teacher safety.
“If conditions warrant, we would not hesitate to take a similar position concerning a September reopening,” Belluscio said.
Like it or not, Murphy may soon face a political and social dilemma. Many parents who are pressured to return to work want their children back in school. But who guarantees that schools will be safe? And if the teachers union and the School Boards Association pressure Murphy to hold off reopening, what will that mean for his standing with parents who yearn for their children to return to a normal school setting?
Another factor in the equation is modeling by the state that indicates a mild to strong second wave, with COVID cases starting to rise again in October after the school year begins — and not peaking until next April.
If schools don’t reopen, Murphy faces yet another concern: how to ensure that students have the computer equipment and internet connections for online classes, an issue his Thursday announcement began to address.
Finally, educators say they wonder about an even more murky dilemma: How will the changes in classrooms because of COVID affect students' long-term learning? Will New Jersey — indeed, the nation — face years of remedial instruction? If so, how does anyone measure that?
Marie Blistan says it will take time to figure out the impact of coronavirus on education. “It’s going to take at least two years to go back and recoup and get back on the right track,” she said.
All this may make the September deadline to reopen schools seem like a footnote. Even if schools open in the fall, the aftershocks may ripple for years.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.