Eliminate Fall 2020 Break in Hazlet, NJ

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Eliminate Fall Break in Hazlet, NJ for Academic Year 2020-21

I am simply writing this as a parent who sleeps very little while trying to hold down a house, 2 kids, teaching, and this little gig on the side that I refer to as a full-time career. I've seen people suffer first hand from COVID and lost my father to ongoing pneumonia complicated by COVID.  I do not discuss politics outside of my home and I believe that everyone has a right to their own opinion.  Not everyone will have the same reasons or the same viewpoints and I respect that completely. I am a certified teacher in NY and NJ (non-practicing), with several degrees under my belt.  I have spent 24 years working as a top-level administrator in higher education where I have spent the last 7 months working on reopening plans, disaster scenarios, and communications.  I feel I have a unique perspective to share and I am writing on behalf of many friends and neighbors in similar situations.

New Jersey has 584 school districts with 2,516 schools throughout the state.  Governor Phil Murphy put autonomous reopening plans in the hands of each district.  After the first week of school, I wrote Dr. Ridley commending him for his reopening plan and the successful first week of navigating a level of normal for my children.  On October 8, 2020, the Board of Education in Hazlet, NJ announced an unexpected change to the delivery mode of education.    

According to the announcement, the district will move to a virtual mode of instruction beginning on Monday, November 9, 2020 through Friday, November 20, 2020.  As noted in the announcement, “the District is closed from November 2nd through the 6th and again on the 11th for Veteran’s Day.  During this time, a significant amount of both families and staff may leave New Jersey and may of them could be travelling to a state on Governor Murphy’s Quarantine List.  This could conceivably result in a number of students and teachers having to quarantine for 14 days upon their return”. 

The announcement yesterday was similar to the “leaked” announcement posted on social media the day prior.  Yesterday's announcement, first and foremost, notified parents that the state has experienced its highest levels of COVID-19 in six months, with Monmouth and Ocean counties leading the State, followed by the information that our families and teachers use this week to travel.  The leaked message cited nothing about increased transmission rates, just about family vacation-related travel.  The leaked message, per a source at the Board of Education, was distributed to faculty and staff and revised for distribution to the parents the following day. 

All educational plans for the 2020-21 academic year were approved by the New Jersey Department of Education.  Was this addendum submitted and approved?  I encourage anyone who disagrees with the plan for November to petition Dr. Ridley's office immediately.

In the academic year 2019-20, 1,375,828 students were enrolled in New Jersey public schools.  Hazlet enrollment was 2,761 (Source: NJ DOE).  As of today’s announcement, there have been 16 COVID-19 outbreaks in New Jersey schools with 58 cases linked to those outbreaks.  If all 58 cases are student cases, then the percentage of students infected is .004%.  For my non-mathematical folks, you’d expect to have 4 cases for every 1,000 students.  Note that there are no school-related confirmed outbreaks in Monmouth County although Monmouth County reported 128 new cases among its 618,795 residents (Source: NJ DOH COVID-19 Dashboard).

From my landscape, as a person who has struggled to work from home for the last 7 months, keep up on my home, keep my twins learning, and also keeping them busy during the summer, I've had about enough. My children need school. I need them to be in school. When my son heard about this, he said "I don't need a fall break, mom" and my daughter got teary-eyed. One of my children also has an IEP and requires some learning accommodations. The amount of education they receive is subpar. Right now, they come home with almost no afternoon schoolwork and I worry about the quality of the virtual education they will receive.  The teachers are not the issue – they are navigating new and unchartered waters, trying steadfastly to teach children in an impossible teaching and learning environment, while maintaining utmost professionalism. 

But the fact of the matter is this – this is the first step to not returning to a regular school schedule for a long time.  Children will return to the classroom on Monday, November 23, only to be followed by an extended weekend break for Thanksgiving when families will, once again, travel.  Families may be forced to engage in virtual education again for two weeks, returning to school on December 14, to be followed after by winter break, after which we will need to attend school remotely again.  Our children may not ultimately return to the classroom until mid-January.  And that’s if we are lucky, avoiding spikes in COVID-19 transmission that keep schools open.  I know it’s not their plan.  And from where at sit in higher education, it’s impossible to even have a plan that far in advance.  But it’s a highly plausible scenario.

People are not going to quarantine when they return because the rest of life is not shutdown. These families will go to Disney and those same children will still be standing next to my daughter in dance class the following week, attending Boy Scout meetings with my son, and standing in line with their parents at Shoprite because none of these places plan to halt operations.

Like other districts, we should be eliminating fall break so that we do not promote travel to these areas. Other surrounding districts have already cancelled. Families that have a need or desire to travel are entitled to it. Take your kids out of school for a few days or allow them to learn virtually from your vacation location. When you get back, your kids should not be allowed to physically return for two weeks. I don't need to suffer for anyone else's decisions and neither do any of you. Teachers should be encouraged not to travel.  My employer and my husband’s employer encourage us not to travel or we face strict ramifications.  My husband is a member of a union, like our teachers.

Our district has a hand in promoting a local resurgence of a virus that has destroyed all of us in varying ways.

I consider myself a lucky one.  I have been given the flexibility to work from home because I have children.  My husband is classified as an emergency worker and does not have the ability to work from home.  I work at a University where the students are on campus actively taking classes and living in residence halls.  Employees have returned, at least part-time.  Like many of you, I have to return to work physically at some point but my children come first. As I watch the industry that I have worked so hard in for almost a quarter of a century collapse, I’m watching people get laid off and furloughed and I often wonder when I’m next.   There are hundreds of people out there looking for work who can take my place, in person, in a minute.  I work well into the middle of the night just to keep up, as do many of you.

And our teachers, as they are all struggling to maintain a balance at home with their own kids, many of whom are not in school in person and are trying to teach our kids in the most terrible of circumstances, are grading in the middle of the night and on weekends.  How do I know?  Google Classroom notifications and alerts on my iPhone at all hours of the day and night.

Ultimately, I am being asked to sacrifice my livelihood for the sake of someone's Disney vacation. Yes, I love Disney, too. I cancelled my vacation there in August because I didn't think I could commit to quarantine when I got back. It was disappointing but life goes on and we will get there at another time.

And, again, I’m one of the lucky ones.  Many people are not that lucky.  They don’t have a parent that can work from home or they are a single parent household struggling with schedules and keeping a roof over their heads.  Some are healthcare or other frontline workers that our society cannot be without right now.  And yet our children remain our priority.

As a district that was nationally recognized by several news outlets for its strategy to return to the classroom, and as a superintendent who said in his weekly announcement that "this was the first time [he] put anything before education", I call bullshit (sorry). This district just put a family's Disney vacation before my children's education – and yours.

My children are relatively well-adjusted small humans but these kids need human interaction.  The mental stress is both cognitively and behaviorally damaging.  They need structure and a routine.  They are happier in a classroom with a mask on and behind a slab of plexiglass in a structured learning environment than I have seen in months.  These kids have transitioned in a way that no one expected because at their age, they soak up knowledge like a sponge.  But learning loss is a real phenomenon.  And while this may not be a disruption in education, it is a disruption of real learning.  There are students who do not benefit from a digital environment because it presents a learning challenge.  The National Center for Youth Law cites that “the interruption of learning in a classroom hurts everyone, but students with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to losing skills.  Without services, these students are likely to fall behind their peers” (Source: youthlaw.org). 

In a recent call with a member of the district, I was told that, in summation, the virtual experience planned for fall break would not be nearly as disorganized as last spring.  I wish I could believe him but from the amount and quality of virtual education my two sixth graders receive on a regular basis each afternoon, I do not.  We are doing a real disservice to our children and our children’s education by pulling them out of the classroom even more. 

School district sports are not impacted by the virtual education mode.  In a tweet that was subsequently removed from Twitter within hours of posting, it was announced by a coach that school sports would continue during this time period.  

I am encouraging anyone who disagrees with the district plan to speak up. An overwhelming majority of parents in this district wanted in-person education. They have surveyed us at every step - except for this. The only way to voice an opinion is to speak up and be heard.  Eliminate fall break for 2020.  Stop promoting travel to Disney for “Jersey Week”.  Start listening to your parents and your stakeholders.  And keep these kids in school while the health risks are still minimal.