Here is what we do know about our buildings’ ventilation systems. Our classrooms receive fresh air from the outside via a univent. Our concern with these univents is that as recently as February the Board of Education stated their replacement was a “high priority need” and as such was included in the District’s $59 million bond referendum proposal (RBOE Public Meeting 2/10/20). Last December we were told that many of our schools’ univents needed to be completely refurbished and that many of our buildings’ mechanical systems were past their useful life (RBOE Public Meeting 12/16/19). Our univents are so old that they can not use a filter higher than a MERV 8. According to the Centers for Disease Control only MERV filters rated 13 or higher can help prevent the spread of Covid-19 (“Guidance for Building Operations During the Covid-19 Pandemic” ASHRAE Journal May 2020, p.73). Fresh air is the best ventilation against the spread of Covid-19 but the referendum proposal also listed classroom windows as another “high priority need” stating that many are inoperable (RBOE Public Meeting 2/10/20). In addition, according to State law windows that do work can only be opened six inches.
Under the New Jersey Department of Education’s (NJDOE) “The Road Back: Recovery and Restart Plan for Education” the district was to create Pandemic Response Teams. One of the tasks of this committee is “developing and implementing procedures to foster and maintain safe and supportive school climates as necessitated by the challenges posted by COVID-19” (NJDOE, The Road Back, p.48). While the REA has representation on each buildings’ Pandemic Response Team this representation has been in name only as some buildings have not held meetings of their teams. REA leadership has no representation on the District level Pandemic Response Team. This has resulted in teachers having no voice in the creation of policies and protocols that directly impact our health and safety.
Currently under Executive Order 173 Governor Murphy has placed a limit of no more than 25 people for an indoor gathering. Yet we learn that the High School is considering assigning over 90 students plus additional staff members to the school’s Cafeteria during academic periods.
Another area of concern is that we are now less than two weeks until the start of the school year and the District has not received the plexiglass protective barriers it has ordered. These barriers are critical for the protection of our secretarial staff as they interact with staff and students in offices where social distancing may not be possible.
We know our staff can get sick, we saw it last spring. We know our students can get sick because we saw that too last spring. We shudder at what might have been if our schools had been open to in-person teaching last spring. There are aspects of this virus that we still don’t understand, least of which is the lasting health impact on our students and of particular concern is Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome (MIS-C) in elementary aged children.
We are aware of the burden virtual instruction puts on our students and their parents – it is an added burden for us as well as we will need to reinvent what we do. Last Spring staff had a weekend to prepare for virtual instruction, but if this decision to open virtually is made now it will provide staff and parents with crucial time to prepare. We also understand the desire to have students in school for socialization with their peers and to connect with their teachers. We agree on this importance, but under current protocols there will be little student socialization in our schools. Due to social distancing students will be 6 feet apart in desks all facing the same direction. There will be no in-person collaborative work. Students
will be in masks and teachers will be masked with face shields. There can be no celebratory high fives and no comforting hugs. Our smiles will be hidden by masks.
The members of the REA have made it clear that they want to teach in-person this year. In fact the percentage of teachers seeking an accommodation to their teaching conditions is less than half the percentage of students who have requested all virtual instruction. Because we are willing and ready to work, we want to be certain that our school buildings are safe. We thank the administration for their work to do so, but it is our determination that the District needs more time. As a result we urge you to convene a meeting of the Board before August 31 and make the determination to open the school year in an all virtual fashion. It is the only way that the health and safety of staff and students can be assured.
President, Ridgewood Education Association