Dickinson High School
Dickinson High School, Jersey City Times file photo

New Task Force Likely to be Created to Set Guidelines

At Thursday’s Jersey City School Board meeting, trustees discussed a contingency plan for reopening schools in the fall. If Governor Phil Murphy orders schools to reopen in September, School Superintendent Franklin Walker and members of the board agreed that now’s the time to create a Covid-19 task force to oversee the details.

Trustees offered input on the steps necessary for reopening schools. Superintendent Walker emphasized safety as a main priority, thereby creating a Covid-free environment for teachers, students and administrators. Regularly disinfecting schools, testing students for coronavirus symptoms and enforcing social distancing and face mask restrictions are just some of the items on the school board’s to-do list.

“At this time, we don’t have any specifics on the re-entry of schools,” Superintendent Walker said. “If we go back, we’re not going to go back until September, if we’re lucky. The pandemic has changed how we do everything. As we await the governor’s announcement that New Jersey will reopen, we must be patient and help students succeed in the remainder of the school year.”

Superintendent Walker reassured parents watching the virtual meeting that prior to the reopening of schools, there will be transparency to “make them fully aware of what’s involved in the re-opening.”

Schools’ Covid-19 Task Force 

Superintendent Walker and the board discussed the need to assemble a Covid-19 task force of board members, teachers and parents to outline and orchestrate the reopening of Jersey City’s schools and the re-entry of its 30,000 students.

“Do we have children wear masks, do we reduce the number of children in each class for social distancing, do we incorporate the Copenhagen structure where some students go in the morning, some go in the afternoon?” Walker said. “We have to have a task force to come together and identify a structure and a process for when we bring students back. As long as the executive order is in place it gives us flexibility to customize our district to the safety and welfare of our students. Right now, before we decide we’re opening schools back up after the governor gives us the okay, we have to fine tune the details.”

Trustee Gerald Lyons and Vice President Gina Verdibello voiced concern about face masks for staff and children.

“Masks for children are a lot smaller,” Vice President Verdibello said. “If they do go back to school and wear a mask, that has to be considered. Let’s hope they fit right and get provided for free for every child when they come in.”

Superintendent Walker discussed temperature screenings to detect Covid-19 on a call with Mayor Steven Fulop and the Office of Emergency Management and Stacey Flanagan, director of Jersey City’s Health and Human Services Department, he said. Superintendent Walker said there’s a need for partnering with the city to help defray certain costs, like testing students for Covid-19 at a cost of 50 cents per test.

“The question came up, ‘Who is going to pay for the test?’” Walker said. “Who is going to pay for 30,000 students? We can test the students today, and tomorrow it can be a different situation. We don’t have the finances to support that, but as a city, based on stimulus and other monies available, there may be monies for that.”

It was announced in April, that New Jersey will receive $3.5 billion from the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (aka the CARES Act) funding which was signed into law on March 27. Jersey City Schools will get a portion of Jersey City’s allotment.

“I am upset at our City Fathers talking about how we are going to afford testing,” Trustee Marilyn Roman said. “This district has done a great job. We’ve done all we can to keep the children alive and healthy. This is important. You have to do it. It’s important to keep our kids safe no matter how much it costs.”

During the public comments section of the meeting, Jersey City resident Mary Cruz called in with concerns about cleaning the schools.

“People are talking about opening the schools,” Cruz addressed the board by phone. “Using the cleaning supplies that the Board of Ed buys for custodians does not satisfy the place being clean. We need to sanitize the toys used by the children in Pre-K. We can’t take any chances. Who’s going to clean those children’s toys?”

Superintendent Walker addressed Cruz’s concerns about school cleanliness. He said that prior to reopening, the Board of Education will perform a comprehensive cleaning of all the schools.

“Because of the circumstance of the health crisis we’re in, the process will be much greater, and it could require additional professional services to support that,” Walker said. “We are in the planning stage. We’re cautiously planning. We want strong support from state and city on what we do preparing students to enter the building. Our position is to keep everything in line as this whole process evolves.”

A Two-Day School Week

Trustee Alexander Hamilton thanked Superintendent Walker for keeping a sense of unity in the school district during the pandemic. He also voiced his support for students having a two-day school week.

“Some kids go Monday and Wednesday, other kids go Tuesday and Friday, and one day they clean the school,” Hamilton said. “That’s what my son misses the most, to see his teachers and his classmates. I would love to work with you on something like that. Let’s make sure we can use the foundation you created and come up with a plan that the children still have touch points with their teachers.”

Trustees Noemi Velasquez and Marilyn Roman brought up their concern about sanitizing the schools and how regular cleaning doesn’t offer enough security for the teachers. Roman said regular testing for Covid-19 needs to be put in place for the teachers and everyone else to feel safe in the schools.

“Everything has to do with testing,” Roman said. “Why would we send these teachers back to schools knowing they might be sick or asymptomatic? Doesn’t there have to be a testing process? As a teacher, I would not be comfortable unless I knew everybody was well. Maybe our department of health can help us? We need to start right away. It takes a long time to get those testing kits.”

President Richardson and the trustees adjourned the public portion of the meeting and went into private session for further discussion. Before signing off, Superintendent Walker expressed to the parents and the board watching the virtual meeting that living through these tough days, it’s important to never lose hope.

“Those of us who can dream, must dream,” Walker added. “I dream next school year we can meet the academic, health and social needs of all of our students.”

In Other News

On Monday, Governor Phil Murphy announced that because of the Covid-19 pandemic, New Jersey schools will stay closed the rest of the term.

“All schools will remain closed for in-person instruction for the remainder of the school year — to protect the health of our children, our educators and their families,” Governor Murphy announced on Twitter. “Guided by safety and science, this is the best course of action.”

Referendum Pulled

Mayor Steve Fulop and the Jersey City Council announced on Monday that the council will vote on a resolution at the May 6 council meeting to withdraw a referendum for voters to decide in November’s general election if the Board of Education should move to an appointed board.

“The world is a very different place today than it was in January when we approved the referendum,” Mayor Fulop said. “We still have major concerns with the Board of Education’s decision to raise taxes on residents during the pandemic, but the reality is we don’t want to be more disruptive to the schools when they return in September after being closed for months.”

Next Budget Meeting

The Jersey City Public Schools will hold its 2020-2021 budget adoption meeting virtually on Wed., May 13, beginning 6 p.m.

The meeting may be viewed live at https://www.facebook.com/TheSchoolDistrictOfJerseyCity.

Born and raised in Jersey City, Sally Deering spent 13 years as a features writer and columnist for The Jersey Journal. Syndicated by the Newhouse News Service, Sally’s weekly column ran in papers throughout...

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