child care reopen
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy speaks during a press conference at War Memorial in Trenton.

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

New Jersey pre-K through 12th-grade teachers and several other categories of workers will become eligible for coronavirus vaccination in New Jersey on March 15 — a development that could have a significant impact on the battle over returning students to Montclair classrooms.

Gov. Phil Murphy announced the increased eligibility Monday morning. Also eligible: school support staff, child-care workers, transportation workers and more classes of public safety workers. Currently, the vaccine is available to health-care workers, those over 65, adults of any age with certain pre-existing conditions, long-term-care residents and staff, and first responders.

The governor said at his mid-day coronavirus briefing Monday he would “fully expect” schools throughout the state to return for in-person learning by the fall. He also announced of New Jersey’s 811 public school districts, charter schools and other school systems, 533 are on hybrid learning schedules, up 42 from a week earlier, and 110 are an all-in-person learning, up 15. Another 142 remain fully remote — down 48. Montclair continues to be among the latter. Twenty-seven are using a mix of in person, hybrid and all-remote learning.

Murphy said increased eligibility for other essential workers would be phased in over a few weeks “because we already have a supply-demand imbalance.”

The New Jersey Education Association has long pushed for teachers to become eligible for vaccination, and Murphy had suggested several times teachers were on deck, but said short supplies made it difficult to open up vaccines to more people. This weekend, the FDA issued an emergency authorization to a one-shot vaccine from New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson, and the state is expecting its first shipments shortly. With that, three vaccines will be available in New Jersey.

The Montclair Education Association has coordinated closely with the NJEA on messaging as its members refused instructions from the Montclair school district to return to classes in January for a hybrid in-person learning schedule, saying the district’s aging buildings aren’t safe and that the school system hasn’t done enough to protect staff. The MEA also cited the potential for teachers to soon become vaccinated among its reasons for wanting the district to hold off on a return.

Montclair students and teachers have been on an entirely remote schedule since March of 2020, when the novel coronavirus pandemic first hit New Jersey.

The NJEA pointed Montclair Local Monday morning to a statement that called Murphy’s announcement “an important step toward New Jersey’s emergence from this pandemic,” and also called for vaccines to be made available to higher education employees. It didn’t directly address Montclair’s situation, or those of other districts where teachers and school leaders have battled over plans to return to schools.

“At every level, New Jersey educators have worked tirelessly to educate our students and have advocated tirelessly to protect them and our communities throughout this pandemic by demanding high standards for health and safety,” the NJEA wrote. “We stand ready to work with the Murphy administration, other elected leaders, school districts and colleges to ensure that our members can access the promised vaccinations quickly and efficiently.”

The MEA’s refusal to return prompted the school district to sue the union, accusing teachers of an illegal strike. A judge refused to issue a temporary injunction that would have returned teachers to classes immediately, but the case will proceed March 9.

More recently, a group of eight families sued the district, seeking a return to class full time. Steven Baffico, a parent serving as a spokesman for the group, said even though the parents’ suit targets the district, it bolsters the school system’s own litigation against the MEA. The district had alleged, in its lawsuit against the MEA, that the teachers were opening up the district to liability if they kept it from serving students properly.

Baffico Monday morning called the governor’s announcement “great news.”

“That said, with respect to our federal lawsuit, it wouldn’t change anything at this point. The schools remain closed for in-person learning and there is no definitive agreement between the (school) board and the MEA that we are aware of which has changed that,” he wrote to Montclair Local. “I cannot speak for the board’s view on their suit, but have to believe that it wouldn’t change anything in their view either, UNTIL if/when there is a definitive agreement reached among those parties.”

Also in the mix: Montclair’s mayor, who has the authority to appoint school board members, is the NJEA’s vice president. He told the New York Times in January vaccination is the only way to guarantee safety, but said in an email to Montclair Local Monday he does “not believe vaccinations are necessarily a prerequisite to getting our students back in the classroom, but they are certainly a valuable tool towards achieving that objective — an objective I have heard echoed by all parties involved.”

He called the governor’s announcement “a welcome and positive step forward towards a safe return to in classroom instruction.”

“Along with our partners at the county and state level my COVID-19 Task Force and I are committed to doing everything we can to ensure vaccines are distributed expeditiously and equitably as doses become available from the federal government,” Spiller said.

Spiller had joined mayors of 15 communities in January urging Murphy to prioritize teachers for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine once it became available, NorthJersey.com reports.

Montclair Councilman Peter Yacobellis, in a statement issued early Monday, called for all the parties to drop their lawsuits in light of Murphy’s announcement.

“It is time to come together, help teachers and other school workers navigate the logistics of obtaining these vaccines in their multiple forms and timelines and with consideration of those logistics and timelines, get our schools open for hybrid learning as soon as possible, understanding the limited time left in the school year,” he wrote.

While the Johnson & Johnson vaccine only requires one shot, the previously available vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna each require two, spaced a few weeks apart, for maximum effectiveness. They each offer some protection after the first shot, but not as much as after the full two-dose regimen.

Yacobellis encouraged the district and teachers to consider making the first shot a precursor requirement for reopening classrooms, “rather than waiting for both, so that our children don’t lose any more time than is necessary.”

Ponds and the MEA a haven’t yet returned messages sent early Monday morning seeking comment.

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