Teachers meet school year with excitement, fear

By: - September 6, 2021 7:02 am

The pandemic has shined a spotlight on long-standing teacher shortages and educational disparities. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

There’s a current of fear beneath the excitement educators typically feel when they return to classrooms in early September.

The cause is clear: COVID-19.

“People are worried. you don’t want to give it to a young one. You don’t want to give it to an elderly grandparent,” said Sean Spiller, president of the New Jersey Education Association. “Everyone’s nervous, but we’ve got to do everything we can to stay safe.”

After a harrowing school year that saw students and teachers shift between in-person and virtual classes, New Jersey’s schools are beginning to re-open under a set of restrictions announced last month.

Masking is required at all public and private schools and some preschools, under an executive order Gov. Phil Murphy issued in early August as a response to the growing threat the Delta variant poses to the state’s youths.

Later that month, the governor ordered all school faculty and staff be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or submit to weekly virus tests. Those policies have found a warm reception among educators, but there’s been some pushback on the former from mask-doubting parents.

“I do see a lot of parents don’t agree with the governor about wearing the masks,” said Candy Fredericks, president of the New Jersey Parent Teacher Association.

Despite their outsized presence at school board meetings and in media coverage, recent polling shows those parents account for less than a third of the state’s parents.

Hoboken’s school board last week appeared to be the first to require students aged 12 and older be immunized against the virus — no COVID-19 vaccine is approved for children under the age of 12 — though other districts have yet to follow suit.

The governor has faced questions over the one-and-a-half-month gap between the start of the school year and the deadline for the vaccine mandate. That mandate was announced on Aug. 23, when the state’s case counts were already several times higher than the roughly 200 daily cases recorded for much of July.

But Spiller said the gap wasn’t much cause for concern for the NJEA, which has endorsed the Democratic incumbent in his race against former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli for a second term.

“By and large, I think our members are outpacing the general population in terms of vaccination rates, so I think in a good way, many of our members will already be vaccinated,” Spiller said. “It’s not as if they’re waiting to become vaccinated until that date.”

Concerns over the virus have spawned scattered calls from parents for virtual classrooms the governor said won’t return en masse this year, citing staggering learning loss incurred during the previous school year.

Others are meeting the return to the classroom enthusiasm.

“They’re excited to see the kids again, you know?” Fredericks said, referring to teachers. “You’re so used to having them with you, and I know the kids love the teachers, they really do, and you want to get back and see the kids.”

Some concerns persist. Vaccinations have continued to lag in some New Jersey counties, particularly rural counties in the state’s northwest and south.

In Cumberland, just over 44% of all county residents are vaccinated. That number is slightly higher in Ocean County, where about 45% residents have completed their vaccine regiment. In Warren and Salem counties, 46% of residents are completely immunized against COVID-19.

“When you see numbers that are that low in a community, it’s concerning. It’s concerning because of the impact it’s going to have, in so many ways, on life in that community,” Spiller said, adding that an outbreak in a classroom could extend beyond schools and spur infections in broader communities.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.