As the 2020-21 school year gets underway at public and private schools across New Jersey, there are a handful of districts with lingering uncertainties.

Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday gave a shoutout to acting state Education Commissioner Kevin Deemer and his team and to county and district superintendents, administrators, educators, parents and students for their work in pulling together return-to-school plans.

Of the 723 reopening plans submitted to the state Department of Education, 388 districts are using a hybrid plan of in-person and remote learning, 69 are using all in-person learning and 28 districts are using a combination of plans.

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Eight modular classrooms at Lakewood Middle School were ready to go as 1,196 students reported for the first day of school, according to district spokesman Michael Inzelbuch. Lakewood's other schools started on Friday but the middle school start was delayed while the classrooms were completed.

Six teachers and two assistants were absent without prior notice, according to Inzelbuch. Their absences are being investigated by administrators.

The teachers union and school officials have been at odds over the return-to-school plans. Lakewood is one of 60 districts on a completely in person schedule of learning for its students. The Lakewood Education Association has urged the district to consider a hybrid plan over safety concerns. The district says the vast majority of families want their children to be in school because many parents work in the service industry and cannot take time off.

Superintendent Laura Winters on Monday responded to the 36 concerns raised by Lakewood Education Association President Kimberlee Shaw about conditions at the middle school and said they were being addressed and corrected.

Although sharp edges on Plexiglass were rounded out, air conditioning systems repaired and concerns about a lack of PPE supplied to staff were addressed by Winter, teachers are still worried about the risk of being exposed to COVID-19 in classrooms.

"Teachers will inspect areas they had concerns about and if they're not up to our standards and we don't feel they're not safe and healthy for kids we'll continue to fight to make sure that everyone in the school is as safe as they can possibly be," union spokeswoman Dawn Hiltner told New Jersey 101.5.

Conditions are being assessed on a daily basis but there is no specific "drop dead" date for any job action.

"If we feel that what we're being told is more lip service than reality they'll have to take a more drastic stance," Hiltner said.

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Lakewood Middle School students
Lakewood Middle School students (Lakewood School District)

East Brunswick

East Brunswick schools opened on a hybrid schedule Tuesday as Superintendent Victor Valeski sent teachers a letter about the ventilation systems that was short on specifics, according to Hiltner, who also represents the East Brunswick Education Association.

"The superintendent did send a letter that he had an outside contractor come and evaluate the system and say that the buildings are safe for occupancy. However they didn't supply any data or show any information to show what was done. It was a pretty vague letter," Hiltner said.

The union is "very satisfied" with the rest of the district plan, according to Hiltner.

Millstone Township

Millstone schools made a last-minute to a virtual start after an emergency board of education meeting on Saturday.

Superintendent Chris Huss said that a final walkthrough determined that “there are significant issues which still require addressing” as a result of power outages during Tropical Storm Isaias.

Huss apologized for the late notice and said the district would address any technology issues faced by parents.

Parsippany-Troy Hills

The Parsippany-Troy Hills Education Association issued a six-page letter after surveying teachers at the district's 14 schools about the problems they have encountered during the first week of school.

"No superintendent is qualified or trained for these current circumstances but the districts having the most trouble right now have leaders who do not accept that they need to listen to more experienced people and who assume they know what teachers need in disciplines and grade levels in which they have no direct experience," the union said.

The letter also takes aim at Superintendent Barbara Sargent for an "uncreative, one size fits all instructional mandate that has handcuffed teachers and limited our ability to be innovative."

Among the complaints:

  • Google Livestream, the only streaming service teachers are allowed to use, is "cumbersome" and "difficult to work with."
  • Teachers also complained that snack/mask breaks are not built into their schedule
  • Not being able to give adequate attention to students
  • "Teaching many classes in a row with a sweaty mask" and teaching every student virtually and live "turns everyone into a virtual student."
  • Ventilation problems
  • No Wi-Fi in some classrooms
  • "Admin updating Twitter around the clock with photos they're taking throughout the day with positive propaganda type captions ("off to a great start!")"
  • Rooms without air conditioning while unopened boxes of units are piled in a corner
  • Substitute teachers given no instruction
  • "It was so much better today being from home. SO MUCH BETTER. The virus fear wasn't on the top of my mind so I could actually focus"
  • "Every teacher has said it is IMPOSSIBLE to stay six feet away from students."

The union had previously taken a vote of no confidence of Sargent. The Board of Education posted a message of support for Sargent and "their rush to condemn the hardworking individuals who have only held the best interest of the entire district community in their decisions, serves only to divide the district and fails to properly serve our students."

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