Every year I voice my disgust at the unnecessary closure of schools two days in November for the New Jersey Education Association’s annual convention. NJEA is, in fact, one of only three state teacher labor unions in the country to hold its annual convention during the school year. Minnesota usually takes two days during the school year, just like NJEA, but this year decided to take only one day. Utah also holds its convention during the school year but tries to align it with the state’s annual fall break, and teachers must use personal days to receive compensation. No other NJEA or AFT affiliate in the country holds state conventions during the school year. Instead, statewide meetings, if they exist at all, occur during the summer or on weekends.
But this year, of all years, to deprive students of two full days of instruction, whether hybrid or remote or in-person? How does one square this with COVID learning loss, which is grimmest for low-income students, primarily of color? According to NWEA, school closures from March-June cost students a third of a year in reading and a half a year in math. CREDO projects that, varying by state, students lost 136 to 232 days of learning in math.
But, sure, let’s stop learning for another two days during a month when schools close for Veteran’s Day and a four-and-a-half-day Thanksgiving weekend.
And, sure, let’s stop learning for another two days when fewer than one out of ten NJ teachers registered for a remote convention (There are 115,067 full-time teachers in NJ. School secretaries and office clerks are also eligible, although I don’t know how many there are throughout the state. This year’s “convention” has 10,000 registrants.)
This is not entirely NJEA leaders’ fault. The two-day vacation (and a vacation it is, given how few teachers and school staff typically bother going) is courtesy of the New Jersey State Legislature. Almost a century ago, in 1923, our representatives voted to inscribe in statute a two-day holiday for NJEA members. Hey, moms were home anyway, right? Here’s N.J. statute 18A:31-2: “Any full-time teaching staff member of any board of education of any local school district or regional school district or of a county vocational school or any secretary, or office clerk” can “attend the annual convention of the New Jersey Education Association” and “receive his whole salary for the days of actual attendance upon the sessions of such convention.
Parents typically struggle to cover childcare during convention season. Last year (as I recounted in my annual rant) one mom told me, “they might as well call it a wash and close the whole school system down for the month of November.”
But this November is different. Everyone is struggling. Positivity rates for coronavirus just soared to 7 percent; in Newark, it’s 28 percent. Schools may be forced to move from hybrid to fully-remote, which may increase learning loss. Our kids need their teachers.
But they’re losing them once again so teachers can have a four-day weekend.
I remember during Hurricane Sandy, NJEA decided to cancel its 2012 convention because students had, in some cases, been out of school for two weeks. Sure, who wanted to be in Atlantic City? Yet the decision was gracious and appreciated.
Isn’t this year worse? Aren’t we all traumatized by continued disruption of routines and the struggle of getting through an endless pandemic? The last thing our children need right now is yet another interruption in schedules, another interruption in recovering lost learning.
I don’t know why NJEA leaders couldn’t act with compassion towards families and cancel the convention or move it to a weekend. Maybe they just weren’t thinking. Maybe they thought that this year, of all years, teachers need the cameraderie and fellowship.
Bad call, NJEA. This was the year to put children first. Perhaps the scant participation among members conveys that same sentiment.