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By Marie Blistan

It would be difficult to overstate the magnitude of the challenge we are facing today. The damage done by this pandemic, and the certain knowledge that more lies ahead, is daunting. Its shocking human toll and as-yet-unmeasurable economic effects will shape us for a generation or more.

But even now, it is heartening to see how New Jersey residents have risen to this moment. From the medical professionals and other first responders helping the most desperately ill, to the truckers, delivery drivers and store clerks who are proving themselves essential to our efforts to quarantine ourselves and flatten the curve, we’ve shown that our commitment to community, even in a time of physical separation, makes us stronger.

And I’m also proud that our members’ top advocacy priorities for the last two years — more affordable health insurance and greater respect for the educational support professionals who do so much to make our schools successful — have proven so timely at this moment. Though they predated this pandemic, those principles are especially relevant today.

The first involves finding a way to reduce the crushing cost of health insurance while preserving access to high-quality health care for school employees. Those costs are shared by educators and their employers alike, and we have partnered with the Legislature on a solution that helps everyone. The reduced costs of the plan are shared by our members, property taxpayers, hard-hit school districts and the state at a time when every dollar counts.

A bill to implement those savings passed the New Jersey Senate on March 19. It promises to save more than $1 billion per year. And it didn’t just pass; it passed unanimously, 34-0. When every Democrat and every Republican agrees on a way to lower health care costs, and that plan has the full support of the state’s largest union, something truly remarkable has happened. No wonder The Star-Ledger called it “perhaps the clearest path yet to achieving a goal that’s vexed state leaders.”

And with Gov. Murphy’s projection of a budget shortfall that could reach $10 billion, there isn’t a moment to lose in implementing that plan so the state of New Jersey and local school districts can realize their savings.

The bills we support would provide basic due-process rights that other public employees take for granted, as well as assurances that contracts, once signed, will be honored. On the same day it passed the health care bill, the Senate passed those two bills, S-993 and S-1928, by votes of 32-2 and 31-3. In the previous legislative session, the Assembly passed identical bills by votes of 70-5-1 and 70-6.

Today, we have a historic opportunity to support our schools, strengthen our state and honor the educators who have stepped up so impressively for students. The Senate has already acted. The governor has repeatedly and publicly pledged his support for both health care relief and job justice for educational support professionals. It’s time for the Assembly to move these bills to his desk. It’s the right thing for taxpayers. It’s the right thing for students. It’s the right thing for educators. It’s the right thing for New Jersey.

Marie Blistan is president of the New Jersey Education Association.