A group of 11 parents from the South Orange-Maplewood schools is suing the district for remaining all-remote despite low Covid-19 infection rates. Yesterday a crowd of over 100 parents and students rallied in front of Maplewood Town Hall to urge the mayor and council to join their fight to open the schools.
The issue, however, is not the district but the teachers union, South Orange-Maplewood Education Association (SOMEA). According to district letters to parents, as well as a group called SOMA for Safe Return to School, the district had planned on resuming a hybrid form of remote/in-person instruction on January 19th, but when SOMEA leaders raised concerns, the date was pushed back until February 1st.
The union was still concerned. At the time SOMEA President Rocio Lopez said in a statement,
We will continue to educate passionately but will do so from our homes until such time as temperatures are moderate enough to avoid bone-chilling working conditions in violation of minimum temperature standards and vaccines are made available to educators.
Schools resumed in hybrid form for the first two weeks of February but on February 15th the union announced that teachers would only teach remotely. In a letter to the “SOMSD Community,” the district wrote,
We are in receipt of SOMEA’s email indicating that they are once again refusing to report to the school buildings. As per the Community Reopening Update of only a few hours ago, the District was making progress in its Phase 3 reopening with no evidence of in-school transmission. We felt that the Sidebar Agreement with SOMEA was working as intended. Notably, the initial walkthroughs resulted in agreement on numerous classrooms as being fit for use. Ultimately, it appears that disagreement over 34 workspaces, more than a dozen of which were brought to our attention as recently as Saturday, has led to this reaction. We are disappointed that our Phased reopening plan has again been disrupted. As we will lack the faculty necessary to staff the buildings, the District will resume virtual-only instruction indefinitely pending discussion with SOMEA’s representatives and consultation with our labor counsel as to remedies that will facilitate the resumption of our hybrid reopening plan. Central office employees will also work virtually.
The union claims the classrooms are unsafe. Superintendent Ronald Taylor says the district was “blindsided” by the union’s unexpected pivot and hinted at its own possible litigation.
The situation is not unlike that of nearby Montclair, but in that case the school board is suing the union.
A petition from SOMA, which currently has over 2,000 signatures, calls for in-person full-time classes for students with disabilities and elementary school students, and exhorts officials to “follow the science.” The petition notes that “many local public and private schools, following CDC and state guidelines, have been running for months without major issue. Notably, the YMCA is operating smoothly in our school buildings…To ignore all of this evidence is to further children and families’ suffering with no rational justification.”