Will there be enough teachers to reopen schools?
The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is worried many won’t go back this fall
By Kelly Heyboer
As New Jersey prepares to reopen its schools with new coronavirus social distancing rules, more than 100,000 classroom teachers across the state have to make a decision: Are they going back?
School districts have begun to hear from teachers who are requesting to retire early or refusing to return to the classroom during the coronavirus pandemic. Others are asking to teach only from home because they or one of their relatives have health problems.
That is raising questions about whether there will be enough certified teachers to teach during the 2020-2021 school year under the state’s new rules limiting the number of students in each classroom, said Steve Beatty, secretary-treasurer of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
That is a real question of whether or not we will physically have enough educators that will return ... That is a growing concern,” Beatty said.
The NJEA was among nearly a dozen state and national groups that released a report Thursday, titled “A National Call to Action,” calling on public health agencies to help states come up with more detailed plans to protect students and teachers as schools prepare to reopen. (The full report can be reviewed and downloaded below.)
Some educators have said the reopening guidelines released by states, including New Jersey, are not specific enough and leave too many questions unanswered in school districts as parents and teachers decided if it’s safe to return to the classroom.
Individual states have begun releasing their plans as President Donald Trump is calling on schools across the nation to fully reopen or face the loss of federal funding.
“It’s very important for the wellbeing of the student and the parents. So we’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on: Open your schools in the fall,” Trump said Tuesday.
New Jersey’s reopening plan, released last month, says all public schools will reopen. Students should stay six feet apart in classrooms and on buses, lunch times will be staggered and teachers will be required to wear masks, according to the guidelines released by the state Department of Education.
Students will also be strongly encouraged, but not required, to wear masks.
But the details of how the guidelines will be implemented will be left to the nearly 600 school districts across the state, which must inform families and teachers of their reopening plans at least four weeks before classes start.
Due to space limitations, most districts say they are working on “hybrid plans” in which only a half or a third of students will be in the classroom with their teachers on a given day or week. That means most students will likely be home several days a week working on distance learning assignments.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has said teachers and students should not be penalized if they chose not to return to the classroom for health reasons. But, the state’s reopening plan does not specify what districts should do if they don’t have enough teachers to staff classrooms.
New Jersey has more than 116,000 full-time classroom teachers in more than 2,500 public schools, according to the state’s latest available statistics.
“We’re facing a shortage of teachers as it is under normal circumstances in New Jersey and nationwide. So, this crisis is only going to exacerbate that,” Beatty said.
The “National Call to Action” report released Thursday by the national Coalition for Healthier Schools, the NJEA and other groups says districts should provide students and teachers with masks, switch to non-toxic cleaning supplies and evaluate whether ventilation systems need to be upgraded to ensure the air in safe.
Most schools already have conditions that may affect school staff and children’s health,” said Debra Coyle McFadden, executive director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, a group of labor, community and environmental groups that contributed to the reopening report.
In New Jersey, nearly 500 school buildings are more than 50 years old and are typically four times more densely populated than office buildings. Those conditions strained aging ventilation systems long before they were ever expected to keep people safe in a pandemic, McFadden said.
The American Federation of School Administrators, which represents principals, assistant principals and other supervisors, also released its guide to reopening schools this month. The “Reopening Schools Safely in the Age of COVID” report calls for no more than 10 students in elementary school classrooms and hiring more teachers and staff to help with screening and monitoring schools to make sure safety measures are being followed. (Review the full report below.)
Principals and administrators are preparing to reopen schools under strict new rules while still unsure exactly which teachers and staff members are coming back, said Leonard Pugliese, a former Newark principal and administrators who headed the task force that wrote the federation’s reopening guide.
“That’s another unknown with respect to administrators who have to implement these plans,” said Pugliese, executive vice president of the American Federation of School Administrators and a union official representing Newark principals and supervisors.
Usually, school districts know well in advance which teachers are retiring or leaving and have months to interview and hire new teachers. This year, many teachers may be waiting until they hear their district’s reopening plan before they decided whether to return. That may leave schools with weeks or even days to fill empty positions.
“Some may say this is not worth it -- I can’t take this chance,” Pugliese said. “There’s so many unknowns here, it’s incredible.”
(c)2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.