Maplewood, N.J. SOMA For Safe Return to School, a group comprised of South Orange and Maplewood parents, plan to rally outside of Maplewood Town Hall Monday, urging Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor, the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education and the South Orange Maplewood Education Association to reopen in-person learning immediately — five days a week — for elementary and special education students.
SOMA For Safe Return to School formed in December 2020, and the group says its support has grown, with nearly 2,000 people signing a petition for elementary and special education children to return to in-person learning five days a week, and some 100 parents meeting on a Zoom call this week to discuss the district’s sudden shift from hybrid to all-virtual instruction, and its negative impact on their children.
“It’s been almost 350 days since most kids in South Orange and Maplewood have set foot in a classroom or met their teachers in person,” says Kate Walker, co-leader, SOMA FOR SAFE RETURN TO SCHOOL. “The needs of the youngest and most vulnerable children in this district are being pushed aside in the reopening conversation. They need to be the focus, and the priority. It is safe for schools to reopen, and our leaders need to make this happen immediately.”
“The lack of opportunity to participate in in-person schooling is showing profound negative effects on our children – impacting not only their education, but their social and emotional well-being,” said Julie Fry, parent and co-leader of the group. “And continued closure will only continue to lower our kids’ attainment of key academic milestones.”
The group cites the many local public and private schools, following CDC and New Jersey state guidelines, that have been running in-person programs for months, including neighboring towns of Millburn, Summit and Livingston, adding that the South Mountain YMCA has been operating safely with students in South Orange Maplewood School buildings since September.
In a district survey in January 2021, 64% of elementary school parents and 61% of high school parents selected the hybrid option over all-virtual instruction.
“While there’s no doubt our dedicated teachers are working hard to make virtual learning as effective as possible, the reality is that nothing compares to having children sitting with their peers in the same physical space with teachers,” said Michael Krans, father of a first grader at Marshall Elementary School in South Orange. “We should listen to the experts, including the CDC, and learn from other school districts across the country (and the world) that have returned to schools. The message is loud and clear: with the right precautions in place, schools are safe.”
The South Orange-Maplewood Education Association (SOMEA), in a statement released by Michelle Rhodes, SOMEA Communications Chair, said it expects to participate in mediation with South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education and district leadership next week, adding that SOMEA hopes to reach a resolution that will be both a safe and sustainable action plan for reopening the schools and buildings to in-person instruction.
“SOMEA takes their responsibility for student safety seriously, and the situations being reported by members in the buildings have led SOMEA leadership to believe that it was not safe to return. There are too many unanswered questions that need to be resolved. The goal since March 2020, has always been to return to the classroom as soon as it was safe to do so. We miss our students, we miss each other, and we miss being a part of a community. We’re hoping for an action plan that bears all that in mind.”