The Paterson school district spent nearly $20 million over the past months to get ready to reopen for in-person learning, but schools buildings remain closed and students are still attending virtual classes.
That’s because of an ongoing dispute between the school district and the teachers’ union.
Superintendent Eileen Shafer has said the district is prepared to welcome students back for in-person learning. Her team last Wednesday gave a series of presentations stating the district has thermal scanners, masks, air purifiers and air scrubbers, face shields for teachers and staff, partitions for students, plexiglass desk shields for teachers, hand sanitizers stations throughout schools, signage nudging students to follow safety procedures, touchless hydration systems, and classroom disinfecting procedures in place to reopen.
But at the end of the 3-hour and 30-minute meeting, Shafer and the school board did not make a decision. 162 speakers, mostly teachers, signed up to speak at the meeting. They were opposed to reopening schools – many wanted the district to return to in-person learning in September.
“With only weeks to go until the end of the school year, there is no educational benefit to disrupting the routine the students are accustomed to. Instead of running the risk of increasing exposure, let’s focus our efforts on making the virtual instruction the best it can while addressing the outstanding remediation issues and focus on a successful return in September,” said John McEntee, Jr., president of the Paterson Education Association, the teachers’ union, on Monday.
McEntee said most school buildings are not ready to reopen. His team inspected the buildings and found 20 buildings were unsafe to reopen. 26 were not ready to reopen. And just 10 could reopen with strict social distancing rules, according to the union’s report.
In some cases, air filters were not installed, and some had not been changed in months. Plexiglass for classrooms were missing. And many schools had problems with opening windows. Shafer’s team said the district installed air scrubbers in classrooms without windows. But the union found some classrooms had neither windows nor air scrubbers.
Classrooms in some schools also did not have air purifiers, according to the union’s report. But district officials last week said they had air purifiers for every classroom. Union officials were not allowed to inspect ventilation systems at the schools, according to the report.
McEntee wanted to present the report to the Board of Education. He said the district wouldn’t allow him.
School board president Kenneth Simmons said the union was extended an offer: have two people present for 30 minutes instead of having all union call in to speak. He said the offer was not accepted.
School board members said some of the concerns raised by the union are about facilities and have little to do with Covid-19.
“I know he released some photos, but most of that stuff is not Covid related,” said Simmons. He said the district wants to review the union’s report. “If the union found something that the district overlooked that’s Covid related then you want to address that.”
School board member Emanuel Capers said the union is showing pictures of broken wall sockets that have little to do with mitigating the spread of the virus inside the buildings.
“These are facility issues. Not Covid issues,” said Capers.
“I am disappointed to hear that the Board believes these photos have nothing to do with COVID. As we all have learned, COVID-19 is primarily an airborne virus, manifesting itself as a respiratory infection. The need for access to fresh air, functioning HVAC systems, and overall cleanliness is key to preventing the spread of the disease,” said McEntee. “Is the Board suggesting that these conditions—mold, leaky roofs, windows nailed shut, and the like—are acceptable for Paterson’s children, regardless of a pandemic?”
“We have more layers of protection than any other district,” said Simmons.
Capers said Paterson is “lagging behind” Newark and Jersey City, both of which have opened for in-person learning. He said schools in surrounding communities have also reopened for in-person learning.
“Our kids are getting the bad end of the stick,” said Capers. “Students need to get back into schools and get back to normalcy.”
Shafer ordered teachers to show up in-person at school buildings in September despite opposition from the union, Capers pointed out. He said the district was less prepared back then.
“The district is more prepared now,” said Capers.
Shafer twice put off the decision to reopen schools.
“The superintendent has to come up with a recommendation,” said Simmons. “It’s the superintendent’s decision.”
Shafer’s spokesman Paul Brubaker did not respond to a message for comment on Monday.
The union suggests a “soft reopening” in the summer to address issues before September. Teachers also want all ventilation issues remedied before school buildings are reopened for in-person learning.
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