As parents of Jersey City school students grapple with the reality of kids stuck at home tethered to computers for the foreseeable future, a sad spectacle of finger pointing has broken out among the parties responsible for this debacle.
It began with Superintendent Franklin Walker’s Sunday night robocall cancelling plans to return to classrooms on April 26 and blaming no show teachers and requests for “accommodations.” No sooner had the call gone out than Mayor Fulop went online to accuse the Jersey City Public Schools of a “failure of leadership.” Jersey City Education Association President Ron Greco joined the fray. “We the Teachers, Teacher Aides, and Para Professionals will not be made to be the scapegoats before the public eye due to a complete failure of this reopening plan on the part of Dr. Fernandez.” [Dr. Norma Fernandez is Assistant Superintendent.] Now, Board of Education President Mussab Ali has piled on, blaming the JCPS administration.
It’s understandable that no one wants to accept blame. This is a major screw-up. It has upended the lives of many parents and will continue to cause emotional and educational harm to students who badly need to return to live learning and the socialization that comes with it. Many parents are hopping mad. So much so that they’ve called for a demonstration at the Board of Education Building tomorrow at 9 a.m.
But let’s be clear how we got here and who is to blame. First and foremost, the fault lies with Superintendent Walker and those at JCPS responsible for executing the plan. At the March 25th BOE meeting, Walker disclosed that he had spent a whopping $23 million to get the schools ready for the April 26 opening. Consultants were hired and timelines, protocols and air quality assessments were prepared. Yet by Sunday, his plans were a shambles.
His excuses ring hollow. A month before reopening, he was aware that a large number of accommodations would be requested and yet he waited until the last minute to deny most of them. Apparently, many teachers elected to stay home as a result.
It is widely agreed that communication with teachers was abysmal. In spite if this, one teacher told us that “70 to 80 percent of teachers were ready to go.” This where only 20 to 30 percent of students were expected to appear in person. “They could have made it work,” the teacher told us.
In any business the size of JCPS, the CEO would resign following such a catastrophe. Walker, by all accounts a nice and decent man, should now do so. No Jersey City resident can have confidence that he is up to managing the district’s massive $812 million budget. The wasting of $23 million on a reopening that didn’t take place is just a hint of what the future could hold.
But the blame needs to be shared. Walker was put in charge of a large school system by most of the members of the current board, members tainted by their roles in the firing of former superintendent Marcia Lyles, allegedly at the behest of the JCEA and Mayor Fulop. Lyles, a highly regarded educator and administrator, sued and received a $400 thousand settlement as a result of the chicanery. Many of these board members worked arm in arm with twice-indicted Fulop ally Sudan Thomas in Lyles’s firing.
And this board showed little or no interest in a return to in-person learning. In October, we argued for a quick return to classrooms. We saw that schools were being reopened successfully around the country with minimal risk to educators. Infection rates were actually lower in schools than in the public at large. Yet this board was virtually silent, leaving it to Walker to delay and delay. For Ali to now blame the administration when the board gave so little public guidance is beyond hypocritical. Indeed, the Board’s nonchalant attitude was on full display following Walker’s March 25 presentation when members used their time to question Walker to instead gush about the entertainment at the start of the meeting.
And then there’s the mayor, who conspired with Thomas and many current board members to fire Lyles, and who on Sunday realized that there might be a political cost for him if the schools didn’t reopen. From the beginning of the pandemic he said nothing about a return to in-person learning while at the same time, more courageous mayors like Lori Lightfoot, of Chicago, Keisha Lance Bottoms, of Atlanta, and Bill DiBlasio used up valuable political capital to do what was right for the kids. Now, the mayor is promoting tomorrow’s rally on his Facebook page as if he’s cared all along.