As Jersey City Public School students attend school remotely for the 100thday since September, many frustrated parents called in to the virtual Board of Education meeting Thursday pleading for the schools to reopen. The Board of Education just announced a plan for schools to partially reopen in April.
So desperate were many families for the schools to reopen that, during the public comment part of the meeting, students as well as parents addressed the Board. Some told of their desire to be with friends; others mentioned the trouble they were having with remote learning.
“I don’t want to be staring at a screen for five hours,or more a day to do my work,” one elementary school student said. “It’s not helping me learn at all.”
Parent Leslie Sperber said, “Our schools have to open eventually, and opening now will help you prepare for a strong opening in September.”
Other speakers used the fact that nearby urban school districts, such as New York City and Hoboken, are open for in-person learning to urge a reopening in April.
The Facebook comments below the live-streamed meeting told a more complex story, as commenters wrote about safety concerns in the school building and the potential for reopened schools to close again.
According to Superintendent of Schools Franklin Walker, who presented the city’s reopening plan, the district will survey families and staff and use this data to break up the students into four cohorts. In-person instruction will begin on April 15.
Under the schedule currently proposed, one cohort will receive remote-only instruction and three will receive hybrid instruction in which half the day they will be in school until 12:45 and half the day they will attend school from home. Students leaving at 12:45 will be given a meal to take with them.
Walker said the Jersey City Public Schools’ reopening plan was submitted to the state department of education in August and approved “without questions or revisions.” A 331-page Building Readiness Documenton the district website reports the state of the buildings in detail.
Walker said staff members in district buildings are wearing masks already and that students must also wear masks when they return. (An exception is being made for students who have a documented developmental disability that keeps them from wearing a face covering).
Desks will be six feet apart, and students will be separated from one another by barriers in front of them, he said. Each school has an isolation room for students experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
To update facilities and pay for items and services that will prepare the schools to reopen, the superintendent said the district has spent $21 million, including $8.5 million from the CARES Act and $12.5 million from the district’s funds.
Despite the detailed nature of the district’s re-opening plan and the year the district has now had to prepare to implement it, Walker said the situation is still uncertain.
“Since February 2020, we have been navigating this new territory of the pandemic with limited guidance and no prior experience,” he said. “What we know today will change.”
He said the district is facing challenges related to COVID-19 “on top of the issues of urban education with very old buildings that in some areas of the schools are overcrowded.” His presentation showed that 13 of the district’s school buildings are more than 100 years old, and 16 are more than 80 years old.
Walker also said recent CDC guidance does not take a stance on the “thorny” issue of teacher vaccinations. Board President Mussab Ali wrote an op-ed this weekurging Gov. Phil Murphy to prioritize teachers for vaccines.
In Hudson County, there have been 1,894 new cases and 31 new deaths as of Feb. 24, and the county has the lowest vaccination rate, according to the superintendent’s presentation. Closer to home, Walker said the district suffered its fourth loss of a staff member to the pandemic on Wednesday.
“I will not play Russian roulette with the lives of our students and our staff,” he said.