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T.R. Schools: 170 Staff Won’t Work In-Person, Superintendent Says School Year Must Start Virtually

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TRRS school board members appear virtually. (Screenshot)
TRRS school board members appear virtually. (Screenshot)

The Toms River Regional school district held a meeting that lasted more than six hours, ending in the early morning Thursday, discussing whether to submit a plan to the state that confirms the district will not be able to meet New Jersey’s 104-page health and safety requirement standards and will begin the school year with remote learning.

The meeting, which was expected to be a short work meeting, spiraled after Gov. Phil Murphy announced Wednesday afternoon that school districts that cannot meet all of the requirements can opt out of providing in-person learning this fall. Superintendent David Healy said the district cannot do so, with officials saying more than 170 staff members notified the district that they would not be willing to return to in-person work this fall, fearing for their personal safety or the safety of their families amidst the coronavirus pandemic. The local teachers’ union in Toms River also raised concerns about returning to in-person classes, one day after the powerful statewide union called for Murphy to mandate remote learning for the start of the 2020-21 school year.

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In order to begin in-person classes this year, Healy, as chief school administrator, would be required to sign and submit a form to the state notifying Trenton that the district can comply with all of the orders in the lengthy document.

“If I sign that thing, I still can’t sit here and tell this board, despite our hundreds of hours of work, that we can actually implement it,” Healy said.

The elected Board of Education cannot determine whether or not in-person classes begin, as state law leaves such operational decisions to the superintendent. But Healy said he wanted the board to voice their opinions and be a part of the decision-making process. What followed were hours of charts and statistics, culminating in an abrupt ending at 1 a.m. with about 350 people still watching a live stream of the meeting. The board did not take public comment, instead choosing to close the meeting and continue it at 6 p.m. Thursday, when it will resume with a public comment portion.

Overall, board members agreed that the school year must begin with remote-only learning in Toms River, especially after hearing the news that nearly 10 percent of the district’s entire staff indicated they would not return to buildings come September, an option that was left open to them by state policy. So far, about 70 percent of the staff has responded to a request from the district asking about their intentions, so conceivably, the number of staff members uncomfortable with returning could rise significantly.

“We have a large group of staff, 10 percent, who has requested telework,” adding up to about 170 people, of those who have responded so far, said Cara DiMeo, Director of Curriculum for the district. “They span multiple areas, not just our teaching staff.”

DiMeo said the primary reason for staff declining to return is because they are immunocompromised or live with someone in a high-risk group for catching Covid-19.

The board members, reluctantly, acquiesced to the reality that in-person learning was become less and less possible as staffing issues grow and state requirements on health and safety change by the day.

“We received notice from our teachers that they do not want to return,” said board member Michele Williams. “Our leadership believes that we will not be able to staff it. I have to make a rational decision: we solve one problem by not starting right away in the hybrid. I would prefer, as a parent, to know now rather than later on that we’re moving in this direction.”

The school district had been planning to split students into two groups, “A” and “B,” and alternate in-person school days. Each child would have attended school either Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays, for four hours. All students would have learned virtually on Fridays.

Two board members held that the school district should still begin with the hybrid model.

“I want to wait a week,” said board member Jennifer Howe. “If we can give eight hours a week to these kids to be in school and see their teachers and friends, I want to do it.”

“I don’t know why it’s safe for the kids to be safe together in daycare and Y[MCA]-School, but not here,” said board member Ginny Rhine. “There are just so many inconsistencies in this.”

The two board members, who are also parents, were in the minority. The remainder of the board agreed that staffing would be the primary issue, including finding substitutes, paying them, and locating staff with certification to teach highly-specialized high school level classes in-person. They pointed to indications by Scott Campbell, the local teachers’ union president, that a large number of staff would not feel safe returning.

“Based on all the facts, and Mr. Campbell saying that chances are they don’t want to do it, I think we have to wait,” said board member Joseph Nardini. “I’d love to see my grandkids getting on the school bus, and I truly feel it’s safe. I honestly do, but it has to be safe for everybody.”

The majority of board members disagreed with waiting an additional week to see what new information and requirements emerge. The board was also warned that the district could find itself open to litigation if all of the mandates in the state document are not met, even if there are some controls on such litigation

“I’m not saying we can’t get sued, I’m saying we’d have a good defense,” board attorney Stephen Leone said.

Board President Anna Polozzo provided her opinion before closing adjourning the meeting until Thursday night.

“I do not think we can meet all the health and safety standards for instruction,” she said. “We simply cannot meet the standards, and they’re not optional standards – they’re required standards.”

Healy urged the board to provide a formal opinion Thursay rather than waiting another week, so parents can better prepare for the change.

“I have to make a timely, realistic decision based on what’s possible and what isn’t,” said Healy. “The staffing challenges are the biggest one. I will sit down tomorrow and meet with the team again, but if it’s not possible to open Sept. 8, no matter what we think, we can’t. We need a solid plan in place and we need it sooner rather than later.”