BELLEVILLE, NJ — “Teachers want to teach. We just want to do it safely.” This was the sentiment among union members in Belleville on Thursday night, as the public school district prepares to move ahead with its plan to reopen amid the coronavirus crisis.

According to the restart plan, there will be a “hybrid” mix of online and in-person classes on Sept. 8, the first day of school in Belleville. The lower grades and special education students will be the first groups to attend in-person classes, with the other grades attending class remotely until they’re gradually phased in.

But whether that can be done safely is still up in the air – literally, according to Belleville Education Association President Mike Mignone.

“We are compelled to inform the Belleville community that the Belleville Education Association (BEA) does not believe that our schools are providing our students and staff with a safe learning environment,” Mignone said, speaking on behalf of his peers.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t send my boys back to school under our present conditions,” opined Mignone, a father of two middle school students.

One of the main problems is the ventilation systems at local schools, some of which aren’t functioning properly, educators with the BEA claim.

According to the union:

“After several walk-throughs by the Belleville Education Association’s Health and Safety Committee, a team of volunteers who have training from several organizations in identifying problems found in schools that impact health and safety, their assessment is grim. On these walk-throughs, many issues presented themselves, but the most outstanding problem is the lack of indoor air quality. Armed with pictures of health and safety violations, as well as notations taken on walk-throughs, the documentation is indisputable that the Belleville schools are not ready to open. The district reopening plan is too general, the standard operating procedures for each building during a pandemic is sorely inadequate, and the filtration of circulating air in every building is questionable at best. Due to these facts, the association must take additional steps to protect their students, their families and the community. The results of a vote taken on Sept. 3, indicated that an overwhelming majority of teachers, nurses, counselors and Child Study Team members do not feel safe returning to in-person learning on Sept. 8. We truly appreciate the tireless effort by our administrators, custodians, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, secretaries and maintenance staff on creating and preparing the buildings for the Belleville Board of Education’s restart and recovery plan. However, we cannot in good conscience support our students and staff entering buildings that are unsafe.”

The union’s full statement, as per Mignone, follows below:

“The BEA is an association of Belleville teachers, nurses, counselors and Child Study Team members. Our school buildings are places where your children eat, learn, socialize, receive counseling and medical attention and above all … a place where you trust that they will be cared for and kept safe. Every day you send your child to school, you are confident that those in charge of their welfare take that responsibility very seriously. I know because I am a father of two middle school boys. While my wife and I are at work, we need the security of knowing that our boys will not be put in harm’s way. We expect that their teachers will look out for their best interest. Their safety must be the school’s first priority.

“Here in Belleville, I can assure you that we, the BEA, work tirelessly to advocate for our students. Our BEA Health and Safety Committee is responsible for identifying health and safety concerns and working with administration to resolve them. When our Superintendent Dr. Richard Tomko announced that we would be reopening our schools on Sept. 8, our Health and Safety Committee went to work. We toured each building checking for the necessary precautions in preventing the spread of COVID-19. What we found was alarming. With only a few days before your children return to school, construction is still in full effect. A large number of the univents (that circulate and filter air in the rooms), are not functioning properly or in some cases, not at all. In some buildings, the univents are still waiting to be installed. We were told installation would not be complete until late September. We know that the CDC recommends that school buildings install MERV 13 (the minimum level effective in filtering coronavirus) filters in their univents and HVAC systems. Instead of MERV 13 filters, Belleville installed air scrubbers (which clean existing air in the rooms) and many are incorrectly installed and therefore, ineffective. Can I remind you that our univents are part of the newly passed referendum that raised the tax levy, yet they can only handle a MERV 8 (effective only in filtering dust particles and debris)? This is outrageous and unacceptable.

“The air our students and staff breathe is our top priority and should be the superintendent’s and board’s top priority as well. However, despite the fact that the schools are not ready, they insist on reopening Sept. 8, rather than taking the time necessary to provide our students and staff with the safest equipment on the market today. Our Belleville kids are worth it, we are worth it. I know I would want my boys to have the safest and the best.

“We are compelled to inform the Belleville community that the Belleville Education Association does not believe that our schools are providing our students and staff with a safe learning environment. Honestly, I would not send my boys back to school under our present conditions.

“I feel it’s necessary to acknowledge that only one Board of Education trustee, Michael Sheldon, has been outspoken about postponing the reopening until it can be done safely. We agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Sheldon and believe we can do it quickly and effectively. We are confident that if we work together, it can be done right. After all, our teachers, nurses, counselors and CST very much want to get back to in person learning. Teachers want to teach … we just want to do it safely.”

‘UNSAFE,’ TEACHERS SAY

The Belleville Education Association isn’t the only teachers union in Essex County to voice their doubts about reopening brick-and-mortar classrooms.

In July, the 12,000-member Essex County Education Association (ECEA) said reopening in person may put the safety of students and teachers at risk of infection.

“Out of the more than three thousand counties in the United States, Essex County ranks in the top 10 nationally for the number of COVID-19 deaths,” the union stated in a release. “We mourn for the more than two thousand residents who lost their lives and recognize that each one represents a family that will never be the same.”

“We would like nothing more than to return to our classrooms and offices to educate our students in a safe environment,” President Anthony Rosamilia wrote. “However, it is clear that the science supports that reopening school buildings this fall is unsafe.”

Several other school districts in Essex County have announced all-remote openings, including Nutley, which will be starting the school year with 100 percent virtual learning through the first marking period.

Superintendent Julie Glazer said the district’s plan was extensively researched and thoroughly planned. But schools are still “challenged” in several areas, including ventilation and special education.”

After nearly 150 teachers in Livingston said they would take a leave of absence instead of returning to classrooms, district administrators decided to go all-virtual.

“The educators who have indicated they cannot return in person have years of experience, valuable content expertise, and knowledge of our curriculum and programs,” Livingston Superintendent Matthew Block said.

“In the current education job market, we simply cannot replace them,” Block added.

Other nearby school districts that have decided to start the year with all-online classes include Newark, Montclair and Bloomfield.

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This article originally appeared on the Belleville-Nutley Patch