Teachers in two New Jersey school districts will see a virtual start to the school year — for students. But they say they're disturbed by the prospect of teaching to empty classrooms as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues.

Each of the state's nearly 600 school districts is required to submit a plan for its return to school in September, with the state encouraging at least least some in-person instruction and warning it won't approve all-remote plans without good reasons.

The guidelines got pushback from the New Jersey Education Association — the state's largest teacher's union — which has argued in-person instruction isn't yet safe. As of Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy says every region of the state can safely open schools, and the district has returned hundreds of plans for districts for revisions.

It's not clear just how many of those got sent back for trying to start all-remote when the state felt they could have some in-person instruction. Murphy said Monday 436 submitted reopening plans "envision a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning." Fifty-nine plans, he said, envision all-in-person learning, and 180 envision starting with all remote-learning in September.

Several district leaders have complained about repeated rule-changes from Murphy's administration — which didn't originally intend to entertain all-remote starts to the school year at all, but later said it would allow them for districts that couldn't open up safely. The administration also changed its recommendation that students wear masks in crowded spaces to a requirement almost all do so all the time.

At least two districts that announced virtual starts to the school year for students are requiring teachers and staff to report to their respective buildings.

Toms River

The Toms River Regional School District will start the school year virtually, but staff and teachers are expected to report to their classrooms.

Toms River Education Association president Scott Campbell told New Jersey 101.5. that the situation has created a "giant nightmare" for his members. 

"We have a lot of single parents who can't afford daycare. We have faculty and staff who are considering taking leaves which now creates another set of problems. Now the district doesn't have enough staff to open," Campbell said. "Originally (Superintendent David) Healy said the reason we weren't opening was because we couldn't fully staff the building. Now you're forcing faculty and staff to take leave, thus compounding the problem."

Campbell said it's not just students who'll see social and emotional impacts from virtual learning. He's spoken to a teacher concerned about the same for educators, he said.

"She was wondering, How do you stand in front of an empty classroom and put on an enthusiastic lesson? There is no feedback, there's no energy, there's no connection with the students. I know that remote learning for the building or somebody's home you have that same issue. I think if the faculty member or staff member is more comfortable teaching from home then they're going to do a better job," Campbell said.

Healy said at last Wednesday's board of education meeting that all staff would be expected to come to school, "whether they're a teacher, a secretary, a building principal.

"As I said earlier on the show must go on," Healy said, as seen in video posted by the district. "Our taxpayers, our community, our children, we need to be back. We need our staff in our building in their classroom. Many staff have communicated to me they appreciate we're doing because I've had the comment  'because that's where I teach best.'"

"Our job, and we can't lose sight of this, is to provide a meaningful, quality education for children. Our staff members continue to get paid, continue to have health benefits and we're providing a healthy work environment for them," Healy said.

Healy said during the meeting said these are "frustrating times" and talked about having to change documents and reports after 30 to 40 hours of work because of guideline changes from the state.

"The rules change, the climate changes and you might as well rip up all those documents and start from scratch," Healy said.

He said he recognized that there are hardships created for staff. Some need child care, with their own kids at home, and some may live with people particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, he said.

"We understand and appreciate hardships specifically child care and we are currently working with the Ocean County YMCA to facilitate daycare within our buildings at various rates. We will have that information shortly to help accommodate employees and even our parents," Healy said.

Hillsborough

The Hillsborough Education Association says it's received mixed messages about the state of the buildings the borough's school district. Teachers there are also expected to be in their classrooms when class begins on Sept. 29.

In a message on Aug. 18, superintendent Lisa Antunnes said that the district Restart Committee concluded that the district was unable to meet the health and safety standards to operate a hybrid plan to start the school year, and the district would plan an all-remote start to the year.

In a new letter just days later, Antunnes said she wanted to clarify the delay to in-person learning was only "due to concerns" surrounding student supervision. She said buildings met safety guidelines and that year-round staff have been reporting since July.

"It is important for staff to return to their buildings, reduce personal items that are taking up space that will be required when students return to the building, and assist in the preparation of our schools for the Sept. 29 return of students," Antunnes wrote in the letter.

Antunnes said that "staff who have childcare issues caused by recent school district closures in neighboring communities may be permitted to work from home during this time."

The Hillsborough Education Association said on its Facebook page that "backing off the claim its not safe to be in our buildings to now blaming our members only adds to the stress and confusion surrounding our students' return."

Antunnes did not immediately return a message on Monday morning from New Jersey 101.5.

The district has not provided information requested by the state Department of Education, according to the union.

Lakewood

Lakewood teachers continue to prepare for a full return to in-person learning after the district announced Sunday its plan had been approved by the state Department of Education.

"During summer school when they had the extended school year (for special needs students), there were concerns even with a much lower number of teachers and students in the building with cleanliness and being able to keep up with sanitizing and disinfecting the high touch areas," Dawn Hiltner, spokeswoman for the Lakewood Teachers Association, told New Jersey 101.5.

"Even if they were able to do a hybrid model that would cut down on class sizes to half, even something in that direction would be a lot safer." Hiltner said. "They're still trying to be optimistic trying to work with the district to come up with something that's going to work for everyone."

The district has said that the majority of respondents to a district survey wanted their children to return to the classroom.

"Our parents don't have the ability or luxury or courtesy of not going to work and getting paid," Michael I. Inzelbuch, the attorney for the district, said earlier. "Many people, lucky for them, don't go to work can still use sick days or vacation days. Our parents primarily are working day-labor jobs, construction jobs, cleaning-home jobs. You don't come to work, you don't get paid."

Lakewood is home to a large and growing Orthodox Jewish community, but many children from that community attend private religious schools. The public schools serve large Black and Hispanic communities.

Hiltner said the union is trying to engage the community to voice opposition to in-person instruction.

"They've had to translate a lot of things into Spanish for them and are trying to engage them and educate them about what the district is planning and how that would impact their children and their families so they can be better informed to make decision and to be involved in the process," Hiltner said.

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=433442110947644&extid=UR75xsmLEViV1GSh

The state's teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, has resisted calls to return students to school buildings, saying it's not yet safe.

"Our members 100% want students back back in school. We realize that is the best-case scenario," New Jersey Education Association president Marie Blistan said during New Jersey 101.5's Back to School Town Hall last week. But once guidelines were issued by the state Department of Health and Department of Education, Blistan said, many questions were raised about how districts could keep students safe.

"It became clear that many schools had so many questions about those guidelines. Our No. 1 concern is to keep students safe so that they can learn in a safe environment,"  Blistan said. "That became difficult due to funding issues, staffing issues, buildings that are old and the ventilation systems. It became clear that this was going to be very difficult to do. Schools are very complex operations with lots of operational components."

A virtual start would give schools more time to address the issues, Blistan said.

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