LAKEWOOD — Two first-grade educators have claimed that they were not quarantined after a student showed symptoms of COVID-19 — an assertion that district officials are disputing.

School administrators in this district along with teachers and their union remain at odds over safety policies after a summer-long battle that has stretched into the school year.

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Students in Lakewood, which has had the most reported positive cases in Ocean County during the pandemic, continue to attend classes on a daily basis. The township has seen an increase in the number of positive cases along with the rest of the county with 500 positive cases alone in the past two weeks, according to an Asbury Park Press report.

The school district on Tuesday reported its only case since school started, a staff member at Lakewood High School tested positive. As a result, the teacher is now teaching classes remotely.  No students or staff were identified as having close contact with the high school individual, according to the district.

Amy Lawrie, a first-grade teacher at Spruce Street School, and Susan Mazzaroni, an ESL instructor in the class, told the Asbury Park Press they were pressured to return to their classroom after being near a student on Sept. 18. The mother reported a positive test to the school on Wednesday.

The district's attorney and spokesman, Michael Inzelbuch, told New Jersey 101.5 that there is no basis to the educators' allegation and said he was not aware of their concerns about being around the student until he was contacted by a Press reporter.

"I did reach out to both teachers less than two hours after learning about their allegations through a reporter emailing me. That is very concerning that any staff member would go to the newspaper and speak about themselves and others," Inzelbuch said.

He shared a copy of the email with New Jersey 101.5.

Inzelbuch said a first-grade student came to school on Sept.18 with cold symptoms but not a fever and was taken by his mother on Monday to CHEMED Health Center for a COVID-19 test. The child stayed home on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Five other students from the student's cohort were also sent home, according to Inzelbuch.

The child's mother, who Inzelbuch said does not speak English, called principal Aleida Salguero, who is bilingual, and the administrator began contact tracing that day in order to determine who came within 6 feet of the child and spent more than 15 minutes in the child's presence.

He said no teachers at the Spruce Street School who completed daily heath questionnaires for Sept. 18, Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday reported any symptoms or any "uneasiness" or being around anyone with COVID symptoms for longer than 15 minutes.

"It's not a question of one word against another. Teachers throughout the district including the teachers at Spruce completed the questionnaires that are required before you step into a building on a daily basis. Not one of the teachers at Spruce involved said they were within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes," Inzelbuch said.

"I find it very interesting and concerning that according to the Press story as of Friday one of the teachers said she hasn't been tested. Why wouldn't she have been tested if she's had these concerns since Wednesday," Inzelbuch said.

According to a Board of Education resolution passed in August, the district would pay for a COVID-19 nasal swab test for staff members at a facility of the employee's choosing. Inzelbuch said the district health insurance for teachers also covers the test.

"I find it frankly irresponsible that if this is true that someone who is saying whatever they're saying did not immediately test Wednesday or Thursday," Inzelbuch said. "There is no negative from testing. You don't get sick from testing."

The Lakewood Education Association said the way the district handled the Spruce Street School case is another example of their concerns about a full return to school becoming reality, according to union spokeswoman Dawn Hiltner.

"Instead of the district following protocol or trying to lessen the number of kids in a class, which is what we've been calling for, they're basically blaming the teachers. 'If kids in your class are sick and you get sick it's your fault,' is basically what their tactic is now," Hiltner told New Jersey 101.5

Hiltner said that Superintendent Laura Winters has told teachers who have students who test positive for COVID-19 that they are cleared to return to work if their only contact with the student was "casual."

A teacher — not one of the ones who spoke to the Press — was told by the Ocean County Department of Health that there is no such thing as "casual contact" and that anyone within 6 feet of the students for more than 10 minutes need to quarantine, according to Hiltner.

The union member who contacted the OCHD said was told to contact the county schools superintendent to notify them that the Lakewood district was not following their its plan.

Hiltner also said the district keeps changing their plan when something doesn't work out. As an example, she said the original plan called for a bus aide on each bus to take temperatures before students got on the bus.

"But they don't have enough bus aides so they took that out of the plan," Hiltner said.

"Everything that we kind of expected to happen is happening in Lakewood right now. Instead of being open and protecting people and keeping people safe, they're blaming the victims,"  she said.

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