4,100 students return to Lakewood schools — and so do most teachers
Lakewood public schools opened for in-person instruction on Friday despite a war of words between teachers union president Kimberlee Shaw and district attorney Michael Inzelbuch that had threatened to develop into a job action by teachers.
The Lakewood school district is offering only in-person instruction without a hybrid schedule. The union was against the plan over possible exposure to COVID-19.
Inzelbuch on Friday morning said approximately 4,100 students reported for class, which was higher than expected. Many students whose parents signed them up for virtual instruction also showed up for school.
The Lakewood Middle School, with 1,300 students, will not open until Tuesday as four modular classrooms will not be ready until the weekend, according to Inzelbuch. Another eight are en route to the district.
Teachers still upset they are teaching in school buildings reported for class wearing black in a silent protest against conditions, according to union spokeswoman Dawn Hiltner.
Four teachers and two paraprofessionals did not report on Friday morning.
"We wish them well. We hope they're OK. They are being contacted because you need to have a note.Things happen, we all know that," Inzelbuch said. One teacher submitted their resignation on Friday morning for reasons unrelated to coronavirus, he said.
Twelve teachers and nine paraprofessionals were approved for a paid leave of absence under the CARES Act because the school districts where they live were starting school with virtual learning, leaving them without child care.
"Their districts abandoned them," Inzelbuch said. He had praise for Lakewood's educators despite their differences in whether or not it is safe to return to classrooms.
"Staff are heroes for coming. The negative comments towards teachers and aides are reprehensible. My mother was a principal in Jackson. My uncle taught in Lakewood for about 25 to 30 years and is now retired," Inzelbuch said. "Teachers have jobs that are one of the hardest in the world, in my opinion, especially in a district where challenges which we've hit head on."
Shaw blasted Inzelbuch in a letter for his "bizarre, threatening, and repulsive conduct" earlier in the week during a news conference.
"With a mask hanging off of your chin, you chased me and got into my personal space while I was attempting to speak with members of the press, all while loudly yelling and belittling me and the LEA," the letter says. "You were deliberately attempting to interfere with the First Amendment rights of the LEA and its membership. Every Lakewood resident should be embarrassed by your aggressive and harassing antics. I can assure you that LEA membership, past and present, are."
Shaw said the union's "worst fears have quickly become a reality" and said the district is not providing a healthy and safe environment for teaching.
"You say the district is safe, but your words do not match the reality of the situation," Shaw wrote.
"Rather than resolve this issue by simply opening every building with a full day hybrid for 9 weeks, thereby ensuring the health and safety of all, you choose to create and foster an extremely hostile situation and an unhealthy and unsafe environment that places 750 LEA members and 6,600 public school children in immediate harm," Shaw wrote.
A hybrid plan is still a possibility at Lakewood Middle School but Inzelbuch said the union insists on a hybrid plan for the entire district.
"The union said it's either 'hybrid for all or hybrid for none,'" Inzelbuch said.
Inzelbuch said Friday that he had no indication the district would take any job action again said that it would be illegal.
"It is illegal in New Jersey to strike or take work action but the indications are they're coming to work, which is, bless them," Inzelbuch said.
The start of school Tuesday with a hybrid plan in the East Brunswick school district is threatened by the lack of a report on the progress of a ventilation system in the district’s buildings.
Superintendent Victor Valeski said the district has “worked hard to exceed every checklist item on our Restart and Recovery Plan to Reopen Schools” and is ready to start.
Addressing concerns about the filters the district uses, Valeski said the district uses the highest rated filers "that meet each of our system's operational specifications."
“No filter can act as a singular prevention against COVID-19. Filter upgrades remain possible components of a comprehensive approach to environmental safety if they do not impede the critical indoor/outdoor air exchange rates of the HVAC systems where they are installed," Valeski said.
East Brunswick Teachers Association President Dana Zimbicki said the district's school restart plan is good but members need a report to back up the superintendent's comments.
"We’ve told the district from the beginning that if they were able to put together a reopening plan that checked every box on the Department of Education’s Reopening Checklist, then we would be confident we could return to school buildings safely,” Zimbicki said in a written statement. “The one area they haven’t been able to check is the air filtration system. With less than a week before school opens, we have been told roof top units (RTUs) have been upgraded to MERV 13 filters, however, we have not been informed as to the current mix of filters in classroom unit ventilators, despite numerous requests."
Hiltner, who is also a spokeswoman for the East Brunswick teachers union, said Friday that no report had been received. She also said that no job action is being considered.