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A group of parents, students and residents will lead a protest this weekend with the goal of having the South Orange-Maplewood School District reopen for in-person instruction on its targeted date.

The group, called SOMA For Safe Return To School, circulated a petition that has been signed by over 800 parents and will now hold the socially-distanced protest at 10 a.m. on Dec. 12, beginning outside the school district administration building at 525 Academy St. in Maplewood, according to a release. The march will end in front of New Jersey State Assemblywoman Mila M. Jasey’s office at 511 Valley St.

“We seek reasonable solutions for the safe return to school of as many students as possible, while prioritizing the most vulnerable and supporting our heroic teachers,” said Kate Walker, parent of a first grader at Marshall Elementary School and co-leader of group in a statement. “At this late stage and with so many setbacks, our request is that the district stay the course in the face of opposition, and open to the greatest extent possible for all students – with in-person opportunities five days a week for elementary and special education students by the planned date of Jan. 19, 2021.”

The school district closed in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic began to hit New Jersey and has remained closed with only virtual learning as the work was still continuing on facility upgrades including ventilation improvements.

The district announced in October that it had completed some parts of the project including the removal of carpet, installation of hand sanitizer stations, mitigation signage and plexiglass installation, but that it would take more time to finish the ventilation upgrades.

“In order to prepare for students/staff to return to our buildings, every uninvent (approximately 1,000) will need to be reviewed and reassessed to ensure all units have been updated; additionally, the univents are only capable of using a filter with a maximum Merv 8 rating,” Superintendent Ronald Taylor said in a letter to the school community.

Taylor said at the time that the school planned to return to a hybrid schedule on Jan. 19 and as of Tuesday, that plan appeared to be on track.

However, the parents group argues that the upgrades are not entirely necessary.

“Neither the CDC nor the State of New Jersey mandates the additional air filtration projects that have held up South Orange-Maplewood schools’ reopening,” the group said in its release. The parent group “believes the existing safety guidelines, which the South Orange-Maplewood School District already meets, are highly effective, as evidenced by the low number of outbreaks traced to thousands of schools across the state.”

The group also said that other local school districts in neighboring towns such as Millburn, Summit and Livingston have had students in classes without any major issues.

“Even when cases do occur, the testing, tracing and quarantining process used in other districts has been proven sufficient in limiting in-school spread,” said Julie Fry, co-leader of the group and parent of a first grader at Seth Boyden Elementary School. “To ignore all of this evidence is to further children and families’ suffering with no rational justification.”

The district could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday evening.

Gov. Phil Murphy has said he is not planning a statewide school shutdown. Instead, he is allowing districts to make their own decisions about whether to offer in-person classes.

Indoor high school, youth, and adult recreation sports in New Jersey were put on hiatus until January under new coronavirus rules Gov. Phil Murphy announced last month.

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Chris Sheldon may be reached at [email protected].

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