The teachers’ union received a favorable ruling from the Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) against the school district on Wednesday. The decision casts doubt on superintendent Eileen Shafer’s limited in-person school reopening set for June.
Union officials wanted to inspect the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) at school buildings to ensure there was adequate ventilation inside classrooms, but Shafer’s team refused, setting the stage for the unfair labor practice fight with the teachers.
“We are pleased that the Commission upheld our right to have full access to these areas,” said John McEntee, Jr., president of the Paterson Education Association, the teachers’ union, on Thursday. “The health and safety of our students and staff should never boil down to a labor-management issue.”
McEntee said the decision orders the district to conduct walkthroughs, including inspection of ventilation systems, no later than May 28. He said the decision also restrains the district from unliterally requiring school employees – those who have been remote since September — to report to work in the buildings until the new walkthroughs are completed.
Shafer’s spokesman Paul Brubaker declined to comment on the decision on Friday “due to the ongoing litigation.”
Union officials vehemently opposed reopening schools, citing roof leaks, broken windows, nailed shut windows, missing air scrubbers, and inoperable or poorly maintained HVAC systems in school buildings.
Shafer’s team claimed the union was barred from inspecting the ventilation systems because it would expose people “biohazards.”
“Filters are now considered a biohazard. Possible microbial contaminants that may be on those filters, since we’re in a Covid environment — we could not open the units and expose those units and the harmful microbial contaminant to persons in the room at the time,” Neil Mapp, the district’s facilities director, said at a meeting in late April.
Despite the opposition from the teachers’ union Shafer recommended schools reopen for teachers and staff on June 1 and for special education students and English language learners – less than 1,000 students — on June 8.
“While it’s understandable the Board made this decision in the wake of Superintendent Shafer’s inaccurate portrayal of district readiness, they have been sold a bill of goods,” said McEntee. “For months, Ms. Shafer has tried to make light of the remediation issues that our district still faces and continues to promise everything will be in order by the end of the month. If that is so, then why did she permit our director of facilities to take an extended vacation for the rest of the month?”
McEntee said Mapp also failed to respond to multiple emails about unsafe conditions inside buildings.
The district, among a small number in New Jersey to still remain remote, is under pressure to reopen for in-person learning. The district has been remote since March 2020.
“Ensuring that Paterson’s schools provide the best possible environment for its students to thrive has always been our primary focus,” said McEntee. “Now that we are no longer restricted full access to our school buildings, we can get make sure that we hold the district accountable to make it happen.”
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