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LAKEWOOD — On the first of school for faculty, unhappy teachers dressed in matching black shirts marched single-file into the building to protest back-to-school plans pushed by the district. Students are supposed to return to classrooms on Friday.

The Lakewood Teachers Association is upset at the district's plan to begin the school year with all in-person instruction over concerns of potential exposure to COVID-19. The district said most surveyed parents preferred to send their children to school because they work in the service industry and cannot work from home in order to monitor their children.

As the first day of school gets closer, tensions have increased between administrators and faculty. Union members made their presence known outside Wednesday's Board of Education meeting in a protest parade, honking their horns and holding signs reading #OnlyWhenItsSafe.

Union spokeswoman Dawn Hiltner told New Jersey 101.5 that members are not ready to strike before the first day of classes on Friday.

"That's not anything that's been confirmed. They're not planning it right now," Hiltner said. "Nothing's been decided yet. They're still weighing their options."

Hiltner said that as of Tuesday the union's records indicate 17 members have inquired with the union about leaves of absence.

Fifteen teachers have requested leaves in order to take care of their children and five others have requested medical leaves.

"Not like Freehold numbers," Hiltner said, referring to the Freehold Regional High School District where 260 members applied for leave, forcing the district to adopt a remote-learning plan.

District attorney Michael Inzelbuch has said that union leadership insisted on a hybrid plan for the entire district and will not meet to discuss the return to school

"Union refused until Sunday afternoon to discuss a hybrid model and then only if the entire district would do so despite elementary classes expected to be 20 or less, despite a hybrid for the entire district being impossible due to insufficient availability of buses, despite unavailability of technology due to state shortage, despite harm to children as described by numerous experts and studies of the impact of continued closures especially where parents are unable to remain home and known poverty and significant socio-economic issue/challenges," Inzelbuch wrote in an email.

Inzelbuch told New Jersey 101.5 that the union also discouraged members from taking up Superintendent Laura Winters' offer to meet with members individually to talk about their concerns. About 30 members met with Winters, according to Inzelbuch.

After a day of unsuccessful attempts to meet with the union leadership on Monday, Inzelbuch issued an invitation via email at 8:43 p.m. Monday to meet with the union leadership less than an hour later.

A video posted by the Lakewood Scoop shows Inzelbuch with school board president Moshe Bender and board member Shlomie Stern standing outside the office.

"We got no response. Twice today I asked for meetings. For several weeks we have been asking to meet with the LEA," Inzelbuch says in the video. "We are here ready, willing and able to discuss anything we can do.

"We know the majority of our staff wants to work and and we want to work this out. But this is not a negotiable situation. For months we've been waiting, we've been pleading. There will be school. The board has authorized to take any and all legal action," Inzelbuch said.

Hiltner called the last-minute invitation a stunt by the Inzelbuch.

"He called (Lakewood Education Association president Kim Strickland) this morning at 7 and said 'why don't we meet at 7:30?' When she asks to meet and sets up something formal, he can't do it. He likes to play these games where he puts people on the spot like that,"  Hiltner said.

The state's teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, does not believe it is safe to return to school buildings.

"Our members 100% want students back back in school. We realize that is the best-case scenario," NJEA President Marie Blistan said during New Jersey 101.5's Back to School Town Hall last week. But once guidelines were issued by the state Department of Health and Department of Education, Blistan said, many questions were raised about how districts could keep students safe.

"It became clear that many schools had so many questions about those guidelines. Our No. 1 concern is to keep students safe so that they can learn in a safe environment,"  Blistan said. "That became difficult due to funding issues, staffing issues, buildings that are old and the ventilation systems. It became clear that this was going to be very difficult to do. Schools are very complex operations with lots of operational components."

A virtual start would give schools more time to address the issues, Blistan said.

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