Judge Orders Trenton Teachers Back To School, Ends Illegal COVID-19 Workplace “Strike” | New
TRENTON – School is back in session.
A judge ordered teachers to return to classrooms in the capital, ending what he called a “labor strike”.
New Jersey officials do not have the right to strike under state law, Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy said Thursday, denouncing cases dealing with the issue, and agreeing with the district that the teachers’ refusal to return to district buildings on April 22 was an illegal work stoppage.
The Trenton Public School District wanted its teachers to report for work in the brick and mortar buildings assigned to them last week. The district, therefore, required an in-person work presence to prepare teachers for how “business” operates when schools return to in-person teaching amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the district attorney said. James Rolle Jr.
The district school board filed a lawsuit against the Trenton Education Association union late last week after mediation over the return to in-person learning failed.
Issuing a preliminary injunction, Lougy cited communications sent by TEA, the union representing more than 1,000 educators in the district, about the stoppage of work directive and concluded that she was “irreparably hurting” the district.
“The Association’s directive not to show up for work constitutes an agreement to follow a common path to thwart the course of the council. I think that’s clearly what it was, ”Lougy said.
More than 200 people attended the virtual hearing, which had serious implications for more than 12,000 students in the Trenton Public School District, about a quarter of whom were in the special education program.
The judge found that this district had taken enough steps to make the buildings safe for the return of in-person education, which was halted last year in the spring when the novel coronavirus outbreak brought in Governor Phil Murphy to declare a public health emergency in March 2020.
Trenton remains the only district in Mercer County that has not returned to face-to-face training, but that will change on May 3, despite protests from the TEA, which cited continued safety concerns in the district’s 20 buildings – about a dozen who are over the age of 50, said Colin Lynch, the AME’s lawyer, at the hearing.
The union has focused its air quality arguments on what it says are the poorly ventilated buildings in the neighborhood. Lynch said there was no “outside air” ventilation in some rooms.
Lynch cited a handful of COVID-19 outbreaks among staff working in buildings.
More than 500 school districts across New Jersey have returned to in-person learning, Rolle said, adding that public schools in Trenton were working “tirelessly” to make schools safe here.
The district offered but did not mandate vaccines for all educators. Between 50 and 70 percent of district staff have been vaccinated.
Beyond that, Rolle said the district has spent more than $ 12 million on building upgrades to pave the way for a safe return to in-person teaching.
The district hired an environmental engineer, who released a report with recommendations on how to improve air quality to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The district purchased 1,500 air purifiers for each classroom, Rolle said.
Lynch said installing air purifiers in classrooms would only push out “infected air.”
Rolle said that “everyone is looking for ways to make it work for them.”
Lynch said the neighborhood was restricting AME’s access to buildings and only recently allowing passage into “handpicked” classrooms for a few hours in a few days. He said these were not “significant” inspections.
“It is an inspection regime that Saddam Hussein would be proud of,” said Lynch, referring to the former Iraqi dictator.
Lynch recognized that in-person teaching is “superior” to virtual learning as long as it can be delivered safely. Students would not be “irreparably harmed” because virtual learning would continue uninterrupted, Lynch said.
Students only receive about 12 days of in-person instruction returning about a month and a half before the end of the school year. In-person teaching would “not look like pre-pandemic teaching,” Lynch said.
“We’re talking about potential death, potential hospitalization,” Lynch said.
But the judge, in the end, ruled in favor of the Trenton Board of Education in Thursday’s virtual hearing.
Lougy also denied TEA’s oral request for a stay of its decision pending appeal.
Lynch suggested that TEA could appeal Lougy’s decision to the Appeal Division, but the judge’s order is currently in effect.