SEPAC Letter to Dr. Taylor & BOE (8/11/21): Vaccination Mandate

The following letter was submitted on 8/11/21 on behalf of SEPAC to SOMSD Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor, the members of the SOMSD Board of Education and other Maplewood/South Orange community leaders.

Greetings Dr. Taylor, Administrators, BOE Members and South Orange – Maplewood Community Leaders, 

I hope this email finds you well and enjoying your summer. 

I’m writing today on behalf of the SOMA Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC) to advocate for mandatory vaccinations for all staff, including outsourced Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists, Physical Therapists, Paraprofessionals, Lunch Aides, Teacher of the Deaf, Behaviorists/BCBAs, Bus Aides and Drivers. As you are aware, the transmission rate of the COVID-19 Delta Variant has a higher occurrence than the previous incarnation of the virus and because it spreads faster and more easily, there is a greater likelihood of children being affected by it. 

The most recent COVID-19 Update from the State of NJ reports the state has a vaccine requirement or be subject to ongoing COVID-19 testing for “Healthcare and High Risk Congregate Settings”. Based on the state’s list, which includes Day Programs, we believe some of our school-related environments fall into “high risk congregate settings”. This is especially relevant given that children under the age of 12 do not have the option yet to be vaccinated. 

Examples of these settings and the close contact activities that occur: 
– Preschool program classrooms, our 3-5yo students: Hand-over-hand assistance when providing support and accommodations; gentle touch reminders for redirection; physical comforting when upset; prevention of elopement; hand-holding for navigating stairs. Diaper changes for those not toilet-trained.  Bathroom assistance – using the toilet and washing hands. Assistance at snack and lunchtime: opening containers, food preparation, feeding students who have difficulty feeding themselves.
– Self-contained classrooms, particularly Autism Classroom, Preschool, K-2 and 3-5 grades: Necessary physical contact: hands-on and hand-over-hand assistance; deescalation strategies that may require physical interaction; prevention of elopement; physical comforting to help regulate and soothe. Bathroom assistance – using the toilet and washing hands.  Assistance at snack and lunchtime. 
– Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy sessions:  Hands-on assistance to help the student perform fine and gross motor skills that are specified in their Individualized Education Program.
– Speech Therapy sessions: Methods to improve articulation, swallowing and range of motion that include exercises involving the tongue, lips and jaw.
– Buses: Preschool/young students and some disabled students who need assistance getting in their seats and securing their seatbelts. Children who experience anxiety about separating from their caregiver when getting on the bus may require hands-on methods of calming by the bus aide. 

Regarding wearing masks: As many teachers and paraprofessionals will tell you, wearing masks for prolonged periods of time is not feasible for every child. This fall, students are expected to wear masks for not three or four hours but six or six and a half hours, or more, if they’re older. The likelihood of masks being taken off by certain students who don’t have the capacity to wear them is inevitable. Not only are the children at risk, any staff in contact with them are as well. 

Even while using mask mitigating strategies and having very small class sizes, over the course of our 6-week Extended School Year (ESY) summer program, multiple classrooms were shut down due to positive cases. Students were expected to do virtual school for two-week stretches and many families opted to skip those virtual days, knowing how difficult it is for their child to learn in this way. Students will not be able to skip school so easily this fall. 

As you’re likely aware, New York City is requiring its school personnel to be vaccinated. They are doing this without a mandate from the state and without the FDA approval of the vaccination. By making the vaccine mandatory, they are proactively using a strongly recommended mitigating factor that will lessen the spread of the virus. They are taking on the responsibility to keep people safe. 

Governor Murphy pleads for people to get vaccinated and insists on a full school day with no virtual option, yet there are students who cannot be vaccinated due to their age. With less than four weeks until Labor Day, he still has not mandated the vaccine for school personnel which leaves the responsibility to the local community and school leaders. 

Your roles as leaders in our district and community means you are accountable for providing a safe environment in our school district. We are at a time when a deadly virus still exists and is spread more easily than it did a year ago. It is not the time to wait and see how this plays out when you are asking families to send their children into old buildings with limited outdoor space, wear masks for hours on end and are deeply concerned about how lunch will work. We implore you to recognize the undeniable effectiveness of the vaccine as a mitigating strategy to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and take the necessary steps to require all adults who work with students be vaccinated or at the very least undergo weekly COVID testing. 

We also strongly urge you to partner with Essex County and the NJ Department of Health to help provide vaccinations and tests for any member of staff, not just those that live in SOMA. 

Thank you for your time and attention. We look forward to your reply. 

Best regards, 
Beth Cosentino 

Cosigned by Malia Herman, Kelly Mortimer, Nicole Stewart and Lindsey Stone

SOMA SEPAC Board, 2021-2022
Malia Herman, President
Beth Cosentino, VP of Policy Initiatives
Nicole Stewart & Lindsey Stone, co-VPs of Programming
Kelly Mortimer, Communications Officer 

Letter addressed to:
Dr. Ronald Taylor, SOMSD Superintendent of Schools; Village President Sheena Collum, South Orange; Mayor Frank McGehee, Maplewood; Candice Davenport, Maplewood Health Officer; John Festa, South Orange Health Officer; Dr. Melody Alegria, Assistant Superintendent of Special Services; Special Education Supervisors – Leroy Johnson, Karen Thomany, Sue Ellis, Roberto Mendez; Julie Porter, Head Nurse; Eric Burnside, Business Administrator; SOMSD BOE Members – Thair Joshua, Shannon Cuttle, Erin Siders, Susan Bergin, Annemarie Maini, Elissa Malespina, Chris Sabin, Courtney Winkfield, Johanna Wright

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