Fears of spreading COVID-19, concerns over inadequate training and worries about poorly ventilated schools dominated letters sent last weekend by union representatives from each of Cherry Hill's 19 schools to the district administration and school board.
The letters, dated August 29, 30 and 31, prompted last Tuesday's announcement that the largest school district in South Jersey and 12th-largest in the state was ditching its plan to offer both in-person and remote learning until November 9. Now the district's nearly 11,000 students temporarily will work remotely, as they did from mid-March until the end of the recent school year.
Union letters expressed thanks for what had been done by the district, but said it wasn't enough. Every letter also shared the widespread angst teachers said they felt over starting September 8 with the unique blend of in-school and online teaching and the looming threat of the coronavirus.
"Our school community has not been given adequate resources, guidance and time to prepare, which will impact student academic achievement, socio-emotional well-being, and safety," wrote Cherry Hill Education Association (CHEA) members working at Cherry Hill High School West.
CHEA members at Henry C. Beck Middle School wrote: "Currently, communication is poor and staff have relied on rumors which heighten fear and anxiety rather than being provided with written, accurate information in a timely manner."
In their letter, educators at J.F. Cooper Elementary proposed to split hybrid and remote learning, writing, "We feel an option would be, on a voluntary basis, having specific teachers assigned to teach remote only."
The 19 letters were released to 70and73.com late Friday afternoon after the news organization filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request with the district.
PDF copies of letters from each of the schools, as provided by the school district, appear at the end of this article.
CHEA's letters were addressed to Superintendent Joseph Meloche and members of the Board of Education. Many went into detail about how teacher in-service days from throughout the year could be front-loaded to delay opening for several days and give teachers more training.
"We feel that we are not prepared to return to school with students on September 8," wrote educators at Clara Barton Elementary School. "The staff has not been adequately trained, nor have they had sufficient time to plan, based on district expectations. In addition, we are extremely concerned about our own safety, as well as the safety of our students."
In a letter to parents and the community announcing the change in plans, Meloche — with school board President Lisa Saidel and Vice President Laurie Neary — last Tuesday stated the CHEA letters had been considered and that "staff members who dedicate themselves to the education of Cherry Hill's children are foundational to the success of our district." The district's letter said there was "overwhelming clarity in the primary message" of the letters from the union members: Allow time for more preparation to teach in the hybrid model.
Poor ventilation a huge concern
Teachers at Beck Middle School, like many others in the district, demanded an inspection of the building's ventilation. Researchers have found ventilation systems can slow or block the spread of virus particles.
"Is air constantly circulating from vents to returns in each classroom and office?," the Beck CHEA unit asked in its letter. "Are all of the vents and returns functioning properly? Where is the air coming from that is circulating through these vents? Is the air fresh or is the air recirculated from other parts of the building, thus potentially spreading the virus? Does the filter being used in the building’s HVAC system meet the CDC requirements and recommendations relative to COVID? No one wants to be the next statistic!"
Added the educators at Beck: "The way in which our rooms are configured could potentially spread the virus from one room to many others in a matter of seconds."
Ventilation is even more of an issue in other buildings, according to the teachers.
"The All Purpose Room in Kilmer does not have air conditioning or windows, and fresh air cannot be circulated throughout the room without opening the doors, thus breaching safety and security protocols," the educators union wrote from Joyce Kilmer Elementary.
Educators at James Johnson Elementary asked: "While our HVAC systems may be functioning as designed, were they designed for this situation? If our HVAC systems cannot work effectively with a MERV-17 filter that collects COVID-19 droplets without decreasing airflow, are we returning to safe buildings?"
In a telephone interview with 70and73.com last week, Superintendent Meloche acknowledged the district's HVAC systems couldn't accommodate the highly efficient filters that would capture COVID-19 particles. He explained each school's ventilation system is original equipment and the newest school is 50 years old.
"We request that the air quality of Cherry Hill High School East, which has been historically problematic, be verified safe by an independent certified engineer guaranteeing that the HVAC system takes in and produces the appropriate amount of fresh air, all dampers are working properly, as well as confirmation of the last time the dampers in the HVAC system were calibrated prior to our return to work," educators at the high school requested in their letter.
Blending two kinds of teaching not easy
"We are still in need of more training — training to teach and serve students online and in the classroom at the same time," wrote the union at Thomas Paine Elementary School.
Requesting a delay in the first day, educators at Rosa International Middle School requested that "initial instruction begin according to a fully remote model through the end of September, at which time a transition to a hybrid model may be more practical. This will enable all stakeholders to meet guidelines and ensure a safe and equitable educational environment for all students."
"Unfortunately, the (district training) video assumes that all schools and classrooms have the same technology, illuminating a glaring discrepancy in our schools’ resources," the Rosa union wrote. "The inequitable distribution of teacher resources immediately places teachers at a disadvantage and creates a digital divide among the haves and have nots."
Some teachers scared for their health
"The greatest consideration must be given to our faculty and staff who are considered high-risk," the union at Rosa said in its letter.
"Members have expressed concerns because the options that they have are coming into the building and risking their health or taking a leave, which could create a financial hardship," wrote the union at Woodcrest Elementary.
High School West educators hit on the same theme, noting that "higher-risk staff members have been given no alternative other than taking a leave of absence with no pay/benefits, which does not prioritize the health or emotional well-being of faculty, staff, or students."
The district's letter to the community last Tuesday noted that an "ever-increasing list of leave of absence requests from certificated staff as the school year is set to begin" played a role in the decision to go all-remote until November. "The current availability of appropriately certificated substitutes is limited in key instructional areas," the letter said.
Educators at the Barclay Early Childhood Center shared unique concerns about their young, 3-to-5-year-old students, in their letter. Beyond teaching, each day the staff needs to do everything from diapering to feeding the young children, the Barclay staff wrote.
"These challenges and situations require extremely close contact with students to meet basic needs," Barclay CHEA said in its letter. "We want to be with our students, we want to be back in our building, and we want to provide a school experience that will safely meet the social-emotional, educational and therapeutic needs of our diverse population. In order to do so, WE NEED MORE TIME!"
LETTERS FROM EACH SCHOOL
The database was compiled by njspotlight.com's John Mooney and Colleen O'Dea from information released last week by the New Jersey Department of Education. Not every district is listed.