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Atlantic City schools not safe for students, union leaders say

Atlantic City students are set to return to in-person learning starting Monday. But at least one school of teachers won’t be there, citing safety concerns for the children.
Brighton Avenue School’s ventilation system has yet to be upgraded and is a threat to student health, the Atlantic City Education Association’s president said.
As a result, the teachers decided to use their sick time to call out of work en masse Monday.
“This is about student safety,” ACEA President P.J. Dollard said. “Sadly, the Brighton Avenue School has failed to prepare for the return of students into the classrooms. The ventilation system has not been updated. There have been little protective measures implemented in the school. The school is not safe for students to return.”
There are also concerns with other schools in the district, especially Texas Avenue, which has problems similar to Brighton and a third-floor ceiling cave-in.
But those teachers decided against a mass call out, although the district’s New Jersey Education Association representative said some of them may decide to take off on their own.
Teachers and staff started expressing concerns about issues in many of the school district’s buildings in August, before teachers returned to their jobs, said Stephanie Tarr, the district’s NJEA representative.
While teaching has been virtual, teachers and staff have had to report to their buildings since September, despite some other Atlantic County districts allowing their employees to teach from home.
“We were trying to work with the district and give them the benefit of the doubt,” Tarr said, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has every district seeking the same type of equipment to make schools safe.
But when Dollard tried to address the continuing lag in upgrades as the Nov. 16 in-person start date approached, Superintendent Barry Caldwell pushed him off, Tarr noted.
The union president was told at a Board of Education meeting that the issues should be addressed at one of the liaison meetings the union gets each year, Tarr said.
The meeting was finally scheduled for last week. But when the union sent an email with questions ahead of the meeting — including 95 related to health and safety issues — they were told the list needed to be whittled down to about 10 or 15 because Caldwell was only going to meet with them for an hour.
“Our members want to teach their students in class, but right now, as cases of COVID-19 rise in our community, the safest way to continue instruction is in an all-remote setting,” Dollard said.
Teachers were told the district ordered air purifiers, but instead they were carpet dryers, Tarr said.
During a Zoom meeting of Brighton Avenue School employees Friday, a worker inside the school showed those in attendance the “purifiers.”
“I can confirm it’s no air purifier I’ve ever seen,” Tarr said, noting that the equipment was very loud. “It’s more like ServPro brings when your basement is flooded.”
Tarr said there were especially concerns with returning as the number of COVID-19 cases continue to spike. Atlantic City now has the most confirmed cases in the county, behind only Egg Harbor Township.
Despite the growing number, the governor has insisted he will not be closing schools again.
Atlantic City’s students are set to return Monday on a hybrid schedule that has different groups coming into school on staggered days. Parents also were allowed to choose to keep the all-virtual learning.
Caldwell could not be reached for comment.
“I fully support teachers having a healthy environment to work in,” Board of Education President John Devlin said, deferring any comment to the superintendent.

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