LAKEWOOD, NJ — While many school districts across New Jersey have planned to start the 2020-21 school year with hybrid or remote learning, the Lakewood School District has been moving full speed ahead on a plan for fully in-person learning, five days a week.
That plan, which received approval from the executive Ocean County superintendent of schools, is receiving significant pushback from the staff, who say the plan is not safe.
Two staff members have resigned, according to the Lakewood Education Association, the union that represents the districts teachers and aides. It also held a car caravan Wednesday evening to protest the district’s plan to reopen for full-day instruction.
“The (Lakewood Education Association) is imploring the school district to re-examine its plans and make a commitment to keep students, staff, and the community safe,” the association said in its announcement of the protest. “The school district’s current plan to start school fully in-person with large class sizes, no social distancing, and inadequate plexiglass barriers puts too many lives at risk.”
One teacher is taking it a step further: he has threatened to sue the school district if it moves forward with the plans as written.
“You are risking lives,” wrote Arthur Lang, a math teacher in the district who also is an attorney, in an Aug. 10 letter to the Lakewood Board of Education. He said the plan, as written, does not provide sufficient social distancing with class sizes of more than 30 students in the works.
Michael Inzelbuch, the attorney for the Lakewood Board of Education, has touted the district’s plan to return to full-day in-person instruction, noting that it has received approval from the state Department of Education.
The union is asking Ocean County Executive Superintendent Kevin Ahearn, who approved the plan, to rescind the approval on the basis that “the plan violates social distancing protocols and puts students, staff and the community at risk.”
“Lakewood’s plan will put too many lives in danger. His acceptance of this plan makes him complicit,” the union said on an online letter-writing campaign.
The district has installed plexiglass dividers on student desks and has leased eight modular classrooms to relieve crowding. In emails distributed to the media over the last month, district officials have detailed the measures that are part of Lakewood’s efforts to meet the state’s requirements for returning to school in the pandemic.
Testing is being offered at no charge to students and staff for both the virus and for antibodies, and Inzelbuch said the district’s efforts have received a thumbs-up from the Ocean County Health Department.
“After an extensive review of documentation, the district’s reopening plans, and site visits of district schools, the district was advised that ‘Lakewood has put in place (measures) to maximize protective measures against COVID,’ ” Inzelbuch wrote.
Lang, who filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Education on behalf of three Lakewood families over state school funding, said the plan does not do enough to protect staff and students, because of the crowding.
His preliminary class lists for the fall had 35 students in one, 32 students in another, which exceeds the 24 students per 750-square-foot classroom that the state Department of Education has set as capacity under normal circumstances.
“We were crowded last year at 27 (students). The question is what is maximum occupancy?” Lang said. “According to the most lenient standard, the building/fire code, the maximum capacity of a 750-square-foot classroom pursuant to EO 173 will be nine students.
“Most teachers have not been exposed (to the virus),” he wrote. “You are risking lives.”
Inzelbuch has repeatedly said that Lakewood’s approximately 6,400 public school students, most of whom are minorities, have educational needs that cannot be adequately addressed through remote instruction, including students who have special needs and who are learning English.
The other issue, Inzelbuch has said, is that many parents in the Lakewood community cannot afford to stay home with children who are learning remotely, because they need to work to pay their bills.
Alejandra Morales, a community advocate and spokesperson for the Lakewood grassroots group La Voz Latina, echoed those sentiments at the Aug. 12 school board meeting.
“Our community is mostly immigrants and we don’t qualify for unemployment,” Morales said through an interpreter. “Mom and Dad have to go out to work to pay their bills.”
Children left home alone would be in more danger there than if they were attending school, even with the coronavirus concerns, she said.
“We’re not putting our children in danger by sending them to school,” she said. “They need to go to school full-day. I really don’t feel that half days would be something positive.”
Lang, in his letter to the school board, criticized the district over that point.
“The gist of the argument is that American parents in other districts will not suffer as much because they get sick days, vacation days and other benefits whereas most parents in Lakewood are undocumented immigrants,” Lang wrote. “They cannot get the benefits since it is illegal for them to work so they need to work. Huh?”
“It seems to me that the Lakewood BOE is exploiting the fears of the most vulnerable members of our population and their trust of authority to ensure that immigrant labor is not disrupted at the cost of our safety,” he wrote.
Inzelbuch has said fewer than 500 students have opted for remote instruction, and as of Aug. 17, just three staff members had sought leave under the CARES Act.
“Please note that the district announced … that any staff member who has child care issues can apply to allow their child/ren to attend Lakewood schools at no charge so as to facilitate their ability to teach our students in Lakewood,” Inzelbuch wrote.
Lang said he plans to file a lawsuit to force the district to comply with social distancing and capacity rules if school opens as scheduled on Sept. 8 following the current district plan.
One of the staff members who submitted a letter of resignation wrote:
“During my last four years, I have truly enjoyed my time. I connected with students, learned from my colleagues, and had many sincere conversations with administration. We were a family at LMS (Lakewood Middle School). I was planning on staying there until the end. I was going to be a lifer,” the staffer wrote.
“This changed when I saw the living covid document. It was apparent that the decisions made did not have everyone’s best interest at heart. The schools are crowded. The rooms are small. There are very little precautions in place. It is inevitable that not only teachers but also students’ family members will get sick. This is a plan that I cannot get behind.”
“I learned a long time ago that if you do not stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. This is my stand,” the staffer said.
“I do not feel safe exposing my 4-month-old daughter to the possibility of contracting this virus,” the second staffer who resigned wrote. “I feel that the safest place for her is at home with me rather than a daycare center. I also feel that the safest place for myself is home, to reduce her exposure odds.”
“If there were a remote option, I would be overjoyed to remain a part of the staff,” the second staffer wrote.
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This article originally appeared on the Lakewood Patch