To: Governor Phil Murphy
Kevin Dehmer, Acting Secretary of NJ Department of Education
Senator Steve Sweeney, NJ Senate President
Assemblyman Craig Coughlin, Speaker of NJ General Assembly
Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez, NJ 5th District
Assemblyman Bill Moen, NJ 5th District
Assemblyman Bill Spearman, NJ 5th District
Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt, Member of NJ General Assembly Education Committee
Senator Teresa Ruiz, Chair of NJ Senate Education Committee
Freeholder Director Lou Capelli, Camden County Board of Chosen Freeholders
Dr. Lovell Pugh-Bass, Interim Executive Camden County Superintendent
Katrina McCombs, Camden City School District State Superintendent
Mayor Frank Moran, Camden City
Members of the Camden County Board of Chosen Freeholders
Members of the Camden City School District Advisory Board
Members of the Camden City Council
We would like to thank Governor Murphy for measures his administration has taken to keep New Jersey healthy and safe. He has done so knowing that while many will be thankful for and appreciate his decisions, others will oppose those same decisions. This leads us to the reopening of schools where opposition is loud and organized. As educators, we would like to share our perspective and suggestions, which, hopefully, will provide clarity on the daunting task of safely reopening our schools. Know that educators, some also parents, and families want brick and mortar buildings to reopen, but not at the risk of their health and safety. While schools closed in March, learning did not end.
According to the Camden County Government, as of July 28th, Camden city has 2,432 confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Camden City School educators and families have serious concerns and anxiety regarding the reopening of school buildings in September. At least 60% of our Camden parents have already chosen to do remote learning. Everyone agrees that we want to be back in school and believes that in-person learning is by far most effective. However, families will not take that risk and one reason relates directly to the confusing messaging between the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the NJ Department of Education School Reopening plan.
For the last several weeks our members have been faithfully participating in reopening committees in our districts. We would like nothing more than to return to our classrooms and offices to educate our students in a safe environment. However, it is clear that the science supports that reopening school buildings this fall is unsafe for students and staff. The CDC’s guiding principles clearly state that the lowest risk of exposure to the virus for students and teachers is to engage in virtual-only classes, activities, and events. The next level of risk, they label “More Risk”: Small, in person classes, activities, and events. Groups of students stay together and with the same teacher throughout/across school days and groups do not mix. Students remain at least 6 feet apart and do not share objects. How much risk are we willing to take with our students and staff?
Therefore, the Camden Education Association cannot, in good faith, support the reopening of public schools for in person instruction in September. Simply put, despite the best intentions and planning, the risk to health and safety of our students and staff is too high.
We know that indoor activities in small spaces for long periods of time presents the highest risk for the spread of COVID19. Currently, the NJ Department of Health acknowledges that short term, indoor dining is not safe. The World Health Organization now agrees that Covid-19 may spread through the air in indoor enclosed spaces.
Just this week it was reported that scientists also believe that Covid-19 may be spread by HVAC units. Enclosed spaces and long periods of time describe the exact conditions in our classrooms. In addition, chronic problems with HVAC systems in our buildings are prevalent across the county even in well-resourced districts. To address just that one issue it would likely take tens of millions of dollars and probably more than a year. This reflects the magnitude of the problems we face.
Recently Governor Murphy stated, “Congregating, even if you’re a young person and you’re healthy – and you may be asymptomatic and you think you’re invincible – you can’t congregate closely indoors.” While each school will do their best, we cannot pretend that schools will be able to fully avoid students from congregating closely indoors, as schools are chock-full of young, healthy children who think they are invincible.
If we open buildings for in-person instruction, make no mistake, students will be challenged to maintain social distance and the results may be deadly. For some of our students, adhering to these strict strategies is challenging, at best. The public health safety recommendations of mask-wearing, hand-washing, and social distancing will be virtually impossible to ensure in school. We do not have community buy-in regarding the most effective strategy, mask-wearing.
After reviewing the 104 page “Road Back” plan issued by the NJDOE, there are more than 50 areas where the solutions offered require districts to spend money that we just do not have, especially with the real potential for budget cuts. Consider the following areas in the DOE guidance. Camden City School District could easily spend over $1,000,000 for just these few recommendations, none of which even begin to mention staffing.
There are solutions. Schools can create an environment that meets many of our challenges by employing strategies to provide rich and robust virtual learning, aided by Governor Murphy’s strong commitment to closing the digital divide. There are also quality solutions to childcare that incorporate strong school/community partnerships. There are solutions and educators and families are willing and able to develop them while keeping health and safety at the forefront of our educational planning.
Rest assured, we want to get back to teaching in our buildings, when safe for all to enter. We,the leadership of the Camden Education Association are asking that as leaders you take the next step and support a remote start to the year so that during this unprecedented crisis we can continue to deliver the best quality education that made NJ schools the best in the nation.
The Leadership of the Camden Education Association