Back to school, not to normal: NJ educators at breaking point
TRENTON – As the running joke goes during the pandemic, when time got distorted first by shutdowns and then the still-endless disruptions: Today is the 598th day of March 2020.
Same concept applies to schools – only it’s not funny and has students, teachers and administrators exhausted. Kids are back in their classrooms this year, but things are still far from normal.
Between extra tasks, required masks, angry parents and more, executive director Karen Bingert of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association said educators are at the breaking point and fears a wave of principals retiring early or resigning.
“People who I have known to be the eternal optimists, the cheerleaders, the ones who are always coming up with the bright ideas, and I am seeing them breaking down in front of me,” Bingert told the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools. “And I am heartbroken for that.”
Schools have shortages of teachers and substitutes. There are not enough school nurses. Principals or vice principals spend half to two-thirds of their time on contact tracing, Bingert said.
“To say that COVID management is all-consuming is actually a complete understatement,” she said.
North Warren Regional Superintendent Sarah Bilotti said the amount of stress being felt by staff is approaching end-of-year levels, and it’s only October.
“I heard a phrase the other day that really resonated with me. I heard that our teachers are June tired,” Billotti said.
Steve Beatty, vice president of the New Jersey Education, said the mental and physical toll has teachers at a breaking point.
“They’re weary. And they’re sometimes fearful and frustrated, and they share that with me,” Beatty said. “And it’s not because they are ungrateful, and it’s not because they don’t care. It’s because more and more, we’re asking educators to do under current conditions – even under the best current conditions – what we’re asking simply is impossible in many cases.”
Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Paterson, said he knows 180 days of school are mandatory but that because of COVID, it’s time to look in a different way at things such as mental health breaks for staff and students.
“We do not want people and staff and students burned out come November, December and our attendance rates go down, behavioral issues will increase.”
Lawmakers in both parties expressed interest in getting rid of a state law that requires public workers to live in New Jersey.
Debra Bradley, director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, said New Jersey borders several other states and that the change could help ease a teacher shortage.
“And our members have been ready to hire qualified staff members from New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware but have been unable to do so due to the provisions of that residency law,” Bradley said.
Bradley also recommended allowing retired teachers to return to the classroom until the COVID impacts on school staffing subside.