Open Letter to Princeton Public Schools

Frank Chmiel at BOE Meeting

[Update 5/28/2023: As reported on Planet Princeton, PPS has released PREA’s Jan. 3rd, 2023 letter to Superintendent Kelley, the Board, and Ms. Gold.]
[Update 10/27/2023: As reported on Planet Princeton, Superintendent Kelley has resigned.]

Dear Board of Education, Superintendent, and Members of Princeton Regional Education Association (PREA),

As an engaged parent within the Princeton Public Schools community, I have refrained from commenting on the recent dismissal of Principal Chmiel until fully grasping the circumstances surrounding this issue, particularly with respect to mask mandates and vaccination. I cannot comment on all aspects of Mr. Chmiel’s performance, but would like to address the confusion surrounding health-related concerns.

As a community, we have navigated a major trauma that has transformed our lives and workplaces. The effects of this can be seen in the disagreement between Mr. Chmiel and his detractors. As parents, we have experienced the upheaval of our children’s education, much of which was mandated by state laws. Similarly, teachers were legally obligated to return to physical classrooms while managing their own health risks.

This shared experience of adversity and change should foster empathy and understanding among all parties. The emphasis on masking and vaccination in the government’s response to the crisis can be understood as a way to persuade teachers and ourselves that the safety of the school environment could be maintained when the reality was a bit more stark. The tension here is the delicate balance between prioritizing the wellbeing and education of our children, as well as protecting the health of our educators.

Reflecting on the past, we now understand that mask mandates (such as those reviewed by Cochrane Library) and vaccines (as admitted by ABC News) were perhaps only moderately effective in reducing the number of new infections after the initial waves had occurred, and that thankfully, the risk in classrooms and school activities was not quite as high as we initially feared. To better understand the sequence of events surrounding these measures and Mr. Chmiel’s dismissal, please revisit the timeline:

March 4, 2020: First known case of COVID-19 appears in in New Jersey.

March 18, 2020: All New Jersey schools are shut down by Governor Murphy’s Executive Order 104.

November 30, 2020: PHS principal Jessica Baxter resigns from her post, after serving since July 2019.

February 2021: It is widely reported that the Pfizer vaccine in Israel was effective at stopping  transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

May 14, 2021: The CDC updates its public health guidance to say that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a face mask or practice social distancing in nearly all settings.

June 2021: The Delta variant becomes the predominant strain in New Jersey, although numbers remained low here throughout the summer.

June 28, 2021: Governor Murphy declares he will stop mask mandates for schools in the fall and leave the decision up to individual school districts.

July 1, 2021: Frank Chmiel begins serving as the Principal of Princeton High School. Carol Kelley simultaneously begins her post as Superintendent of Princeton Public Schools on the same date.

July 3, 2021: An outbreak of the Delta variant occurs in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where 74% of those infected had been fully vaccinated, thus demonstrating the waning efficacy of the vaccines.

 July 20, 2021: Governor Murphy reiterates that he does not plan to reinstitute a statewide mask mandate in the fall.

July 27, 2021: In a major shift, the CDC changes course on its guidance to schools, now recommending universal masking be implemented regardless of vaccination status, whereas before it had suggested those who had been vaccinated could do without masks.

August 9, 2021: New Jersey governor Phil Murphy’s Executive Order 251 goes into effect, which reverses his previous guidance and mandates masking in schools.

August 20(?), 2021: Mr. Chmiel holds a meeting with staff members where he removed his mask. A comment was made about vaccination and some received the impression that Mr. Chmiel was vaccinated, when he was not.

October 18, 2021: New Jersey governor Phil Murphy’s Executive Order 253 goes into effect, which requires all school personnel to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing.

December 2021: Mr. Chmiel is exposed to COVID and as a result of his lengthy quarantine period, staff members were able to determine his vaccination status.

January 3, 2022: The Princeton Board of Education received a letter from PREA on behalf of 148 teachers which complained that Mr. Chmiel had misled them about his vaccination status, and made them feel very uncomfortable by not wearing a mask despite Executive Order 251.

March 7, 2022: Governor Murphy’s Executive Order 292 goes into effect, lifting the school mask mandate.

Upon reflection, it seems there was a misunderstanding about the risks associated with COVID-19 transmission. The union and Superintendent’s concerns about Mr. Chmiel’s vaccination status are understandable but based on a false premise. Even if Mr. Chmiel and his entire staff were fully vaccinated, it would not have eliminated the risk of transmission of the Delta variant, which, at the time, was responsible for 99% of new COVID-19 cases in the United States. This specific variant’s potential for transmission was indeed the primary reason health authorities authorized continued use of masks. Analogously, insisting on last year’s influenza vaccine to combat this year’s strain might offer some degree of protection, but is not an effective or meaningful strategy for mitigation.

Executive Order 251 contained a set of guidelines which districts were required to meet in making their own masking policies; it was not the masking policy itself. By the time of Mr. Chmiel’s meeting in late August 2021, the district had just posted its policy on August 19th in response to the Order and the guidance from the CDC and Governor over the summer had shifted back and forth repeatedly. Princeton Public School’s May 14th, 2021 update on health protocols stated that its policy on masking would depend upon the state’s updated guidance. Thus, it is hard to say with certainty what district policy was actually in effect over the summer, and whether Chmiel had broken it, even after Murphy had issued Order 251.

With respect to his vaccination status, it appears PREA members and the Superintendent  infringed upon Mr. Chmiel’s right to privacy with regards to confidential medical information, which is protected by federal EEOC regulations and NJSA 6A:32-6.3. The New Jersey Education Association explained these rules in their NJEA Vaccine FAQ of Aug. 24, 2021. PREA members and other school personnel should have known that citing his vaccine hesitancy as a reason to get him fired was improper and against their own guidelines.

Mr. Chmiel was completely within his rights to refuse the vaccination in the way that he did, and was under no obligation to share that information with colleagues in a truthful manner, unless it was in response to an official request narrowly tailored for compliance purposes. The fact that teachers were dealing with a potentially lethal communicable disease did not change that obligation.

In his efforts to get school life back to normal, Mr. Chmiel was representing the needs and wishes of students and parents, but in so doing he perhaps unwittingly became the face of a perceived threat to the wellbeing of staff members and colleagues. Given the context of the pandemic and the pressures surrounding the re-opening of schools, as the new principal, he should have been extended understanding and guidance from his colleagues and superiors.

Going forward, we must prioritize the betterment of our educational community. The reinstatement of Mr. Chmiel would set the stage for growth and mutual respect. Furthermore, this would enable the district to focus on its crucial ongoing projects, such as curriculum reform aimed at improving student equity and psychological wellbeing. Whatever the outcome, it is my sincere hope that this unfortunate event will not hinder our progress.

Keith Moulton
May 26, 2023

The author is the parent of two children who have recently completed preschool through 12th grade in Princeton Public Schools. In the past, he has lobbied strongly for reform to the district’s tracking practices, and has been a vociferous early proponent of masking while being equally critical of governmental vaccine and mask mandates. In 1960, his aunt resigned from the FDA and testified to the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust about the lax procedures at the agency. That testimony, in conjunction with her friendship with Dr. Frances Kelsey and the horrifying events which followed (page 34), would eventually force the FDA to adopt her recommendations for reform, which included the requirement that new drugs should not only be safe, but effective as well.

Thoughts, questions, and corrections are welcome below. Moderated lightly.

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