AFTNJ President Donna M. Chiera was among the speakers Jan. 6 during a virtual meeting with the New Jersey Senate Education Committee, the last session with state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz as its chair.

“COVID has become a political football,” Chiera said, “and depending on which district you’re with or in, if the parents in your district are up in arms about masks and vaccines, the students are coming into that classroom with that attitude. And the teachers on the front line are seeing it.”

Due to staffing issues, teachers have been fulfilling duties that are normally handled by nurses, guidance counselors and custodians, she added.

In the COVID era, experienced educators have retired and those in the prime of their teaching careers have also stepped aside, so “ambassadors for the profession” are needed, Chiera said.

Collaboration is also needed on multiple levels.

“The professional voices, the people on the front line: They need to have a voice in what’s being implemented,” Chiera said. She also cited the importance of relationships with institutions of higher education to create “grow your own”-type teacher academies in the state, similar to the one Newark’s school district has with Montclair State University.

Chiera and Ruiz were in agreement that thorough COVID testing is necessary in order for schools to remain open.

“We are not testing people as they walk [into] a building,” Chiera said. “Everyone else in the world has to get tested to go to a job. … The school building is a sacred building where the future of our global society depends on what happens in those school buildings. … We can certainly do a more rigorous testing program.”

“I am hoping … that this is where the state takes a clear approach in helping our districts so that superintendents don’t have to make their own decisions, but that they get what they need in place,” Ruiz replied.

In written testimony provided to the committee prior to the meeting, Chiera said the AFTNJ is in the process of assembling a teacher-shortage task force.

“By gathering information from union locals across the state, we will determine what their most-pressing concerns are and come up with action plans that best serve our members and their school districts,” Chiera wrote.

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