Breaking News: NJEA Lawyers Demand Lakewood Schools Stop Violating State Social Distancing Orders

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Last week the law firm Selikoff & Cohen sent a seven-page letter on behalf of NJEA and the union’s local Lakewood arm to Superintendent Laura Winters demanding that the district “cease and desist its blatant violation of  violation of Executive Orders 104 and 107 and the guidance issued by the New Jersey Department of Education on school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The letter is cc’d to the president of the local union, the president of the Lakewood School Board (Moshe Bender), and Michael Inzelbuch, Lakewood’s well-paid lawyer ($715,000 per year).

I was given a copy by an anonymous source. Here’s my summary; at the bottom of this post is a link to the complete letter.

The lawyers write,

It has come to our attention that the Lakewood Public School District has been/will be conducting in-person evaluations and requiring teachers to report to work to clean out their classrooms and the students’ desks and lockers. 

First, at this time, absolutely no in-person evaluations of students or teachers should be occurring during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It is our understanding that the District is implementing in-person meetings to determine if students are eligible for services pursuant to the following types of evaluations: 

Where are NJEA and its lawyers getting their information? They cite emails sent by Winters to staff, the first one dated May 11th:

In-Person Evaluations start today, as all mandated timelines must be met and have not been waived by the Commissioner of Education or the Governor of New Jersey. 

The Lakewood School District’s In Person Evaluation guidelines are in accordance with the Governor’s Executive Order 107, and have been reviewed by the Department of Health, Chief-of-Police, and County Superintendent. 

And another sent by Winters the following day:

The District will test all incoming students utilizing the same In-person guidelines that are being used now! 

Home language surveys will be completed! 

In-Person Evaluations started this week as all mandated timelines must be met and have not been waived by the Commissioner of Education or the Governor of New Jersey. 

The Lakewood School District’s In Person Evaluation guidelines are in accordance with the Governor’s Executive Order 107, and have been reviewed by the Department of Health, Chief-of-Police, and County Superintendent. 

Social Evaluations are being conducted via video conferencing. 

The following In-person evaluations are being conducted: Speech evaluations OT evaluations PT evaluations Psychological evaluations Learning evaluations 

ELL evaluations will begin shortly for all new incoming students 

Whoa, Nellie, say the lawyers; Winters has her facts wrong. While she claims that “in-person evaluations have not been waived” by the Department of Education, in fact “the Lakewood School District’s In Person Evaluation guidelines are not in accordance with the Governor’s Executive Order 107.”

What follows are lengthy explanations of Murphy’s Executive Orders that close all schools, public and private,  from March 18th until further notice, including an “extended prohibition on in-person instruction through the end of this school year. “It is plain…that in-person evaluations are not in accordance with the law at this time,” they write. “Certainly, no students and/or parents should be interacting in person with teachers, and certainly not on any school premises, which are very specifically closed to all students. Notably, any place where the District directs an evaluation to occur is, in fact, a premise where school functions are occurring, and is therefore a school premise which is closed to students as long as [Executive Order 107] remains in effect.”

The lawyers note that Lakewood Public Schools is clearly aware of these risks because all school board meetings are held remotely. They continue,

If the Board itself recognizes that in person meetings are a serious safety risk, it strains credulity that the District should force employees or students to engage in-person school-related interactions, including the evaluations in question, thereby placing employees and students at the very risk the Board seeks to protect itself from. 

And Lakewood is, after all, Lakewood, where members of the ultra-Orthodox community have been regularly violating social-distancing rules. (From NJTV: “Despite emphatic public health messages about the need to stay home and prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus that has now killed nearly 650 in the state, officials here say achieving wholesale compliance has been an ongoing battle.”) The letter continues,

Lakewood Township is the epicenter for COVID-19 infections in Ocean County. As of May 13, 2020, Lakewood Township alone has had 2,050 reported infections, leading to at least 116 deaths, which is more infections and deaths than any other municipality in the county.’ It is reckless and egregious to force employees, parents, and students to further fuel the COVID-19 wildfire that is currently rampaging through Lakewood. 

Lakewood Public Schools District is also violating rules by “requiring teachers and paraprofessionals to clean out classrooms.”  This comes from a email, dated May 12th, from Clifton Avenue Grade School Principal Debra Long to all staff:

As per Mrs. Winters, this is NOT voluntary …each classroom must be closed out to receive a live check at the end of the year…We will be collecting your ID/classroom keys/Parking Passes so please bring those with you. 

The same day Ella G Clark Elementary School Principal Deborah Meabe sent out a similar email “attaching a schedule for room clean up, which was distributed to teachers, which appears to be mandatory, and which mandates the wearing of gloves and masks, which it does not purport to provide.” Paraprofessionals are expected to be there too. (Debra Long says in her email that while masks are mandatory, gloves are optional.)

The lawyers note that forcing teachers to travel to school violates the Stay-At-Home order and that schools are only allowed to open to provide food or “child care services if needed in emergency situations after consultation with the Department of Health Commissioner.” Cleaning classrooms in May hardly qualifies as an “emergency,” they say, especially since Gov. Murphy “has not yet provided instruction as to summer activities and school openings for the summer or even the fall.” 

After a long list of requirements the district must fulfill to legally clean classrooms, the lawyers say “the District cease and desist its unlawful directives immediately.”

The Association and its members reserve all rights against the District and its administrators who are issuing directives in reckless disregard of known threats to health and safety. The Association reserves the right to grieve lost sick days and this letter preserves all claims that any members may have arising under the Workers’ Compensation Laws or under Laidlow v. Hariton Machinery Co., Inc., 170NJ 602 (2002) and Millison v.E.I. duPontdeNemours & Co., 101 NJ 161 (1985), providing for liability for tort damages outside of the workers compensation bar where an employer knowingly places employees in harm’s way. In an egregious case, there may be individual liability in tort for the agents and officers of the employer. 

They conclude by demanding that Inzelbuch “bring this reckless action to an immediate end.”

Here’s a link to the complete letter:

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