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Schools Leaders Elaborate on September Reopening


June 25 School Board Meeting Also Dedicated to Budget, Moore School, Racial Equity

Jersey City Schools Superintendent Franklin Walker said that the city’s board of education is on track to deliver a balanced budget for SY2020-21 while it prepares for a September reopening of schools under state guidelines. School closings due to Covid-19 and a school year-end shortfall of $125 million were obstacles Jersey City’s Board of Education faced in the 2019-20 school year.

“We plan to start school in September with in-person instruction,” Superintendent Walker said. “There is a committee that is responsible for the re-opening. Dr. Norma Fernandez [Deputy Superintendent] is spearheading that. We have 30,000+ students. The charter, parochial, and private schools are waiting for us to make decisions. We want to coordinate services with the other schools. We know we have an impact on those schools, too, so we have to be careful so that it will be for everyone.”

State guidelines for September reopening unveiled by Governor Murphy’s office on June 26 will also contribute significantly to Jersey City’s local plans.

The Jersey City Board of Education started the 2019-20 school year with a $120 million budget shortfall, according to Superintendent Walker, but through efficiencies and the payroll tax it is on track to deliver a balanced budget, he said.

September Reopening Plans

Superintendent Walker outlined three September reopening plans based on varying risks the pandemic may present at the time. The least restrictive plan features enhanced safety precautions, social distancing, considerable reliance on hand sanitizers and masks, and increased cleaning of heavily trafficked areas. A second plan based on a higher public health risk, focuses on distance learning with face-to-face instruction and reduced class sizes; the third and most restrictive plan includes full-distance learning wherein  all students participate in lessons that meet the standards with pacing, interactive experiences, graded assignments, and assessments.

“Remote (learning) is here to stay,” Walker said. “We are going to fine-tune that to get the best out of our teaching and learning for our students.”

In any and all cases, Jersey City will take its cues for September reopening from the state and the Centers for Disease Control.

Schools Superintendent Franklin Walker

Schools Superintendent Franklin Walker

“We’ll have to redesign the (schools) for social distancing,” the superintendent said. “I don’t have the expertise for that. We’re in the process of [contracting with] a company that has done this in other places and will look at our environment and develop a plan that supports the social distancing structure. We have identified needs regarding masks, cleaning supplies. We have training that’s coming in so custodians will be trained how to clean. It’s a different day. Another goal is to hire additional custodians. We need to have a cleaning schedule, a bathroom schedule where people are cleaning on a regular basis and document these things are taking place. It takes a different kind of mindset to support those situations. As soon as we receive guidance [from the state], we will proceed with our plans.”

Grants and Partnerships

Superintendent Franklin gave an update on progress the JCBOE has made, raising close to $10 million for the schools through grants. He said a dual educational component with local colleges and universities along with professional development for new administrators will also be implemented this fall.

In the 2019-20 school year, the board of education established a grants department where approximately 116 grants, which included five-year grants, formula grants, and charitable donations, have raised $5.6 million for the schools. Eight grants that bring in an additional $4.6 million are still pending.

For SY2020-21, the JCBOE has formed partnerships with St. Peter’s University, New Jersey City University, and Hudson County Community College for dual education at high schools. It will use Title I funding to hire instructional specialists to provide professional development to teachers in the district, and the board has joined the Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline to support new and aspiring administrators.

Parents Talk

During the virtual meeting, trustees heard from 17 residents who called in — mostly parents concerned about sending their children to school while the Covid-19 pandemic is still a threat. Nancy Pokier, whose child attends P.S. 5, said she wanted better communication from the school board on its plans to reopen schools.

“I would like more information, details, and updates on how these plans will be implemented,” Pokier said. “What is the plan for a safe school environment? What is the plan if a child or teacher tests positive for Covid-19? Will all schools have a full-time nurse, enough custodians? Come September, schools will need adequate custodial staff. What is the plan if schools don’t open, and we have to resume remote learning? What will be required of students for at-home learning? How will kids who fall behind be lifted up to success? As a parent, I need to know the process and the details. We can’t wait until late August. I urge you to show us the wheels are in motion, so we are prepared to provide a thorough education to all of our kids.”

Denise Smith, a parent of two Jersey City public school students, thanked her children’s teachers for their hard work. She said they have been doing well with remote learning, and the teachers have been reaching out to the students.

“I wanted to say something positive about the teachers in the district,” Smith said.

The youngest caller was Barbara Ioffe, a grade five student from P.S. 16. She stressed how important it is to her to get back to school in September and that she especially misses her classmates.

“I’m the kind of kid who loves going to school,” Ioffe said. “I understand the importance of the school closing, but please let us return. I’ve been in this school for a very long time. Please let us know as soon as you can.”

Maritza Ortiz, a parent of a student in special education classes at P.S.28, said she was concerned there were no field trips or after school programs for children in special ed classes.

“My son has never been on a field trip with his class, and he has no behavioral issues,” Ortiz said. “Special ed kids need resources and more help. They need after school tutoring.

A. Harry Moore School Restored

A. Harry Moore School

In February, a portico collapsed at A. Harry Moore School, forcing students, faculty and administrators to relocate to temporary quarters at Regional Day School.

“After countless hours of work, our students at the A. Harry Moore School will be back in their newly remodeled building,” Superintendent Walker said, “and we have reached an agreement with NJCU to keep them there.”

“There was a parent who called in about special education and after school programs,” Trustee Alexander Hamilton said. “We had talked about this in our committee meeting to make sure something happens for special ed students after school. We are looking at that.”

Trustee Gerald Lyons suggested a committee should be assembled to address hate speech and racism.

“I can’t believe that’s taking place in Jersey City, one of the most diverse cities in the nation,” Lyons said. “Even on the posts, the inappropriate language, people are saying things … you just don’t say things like that. It shouldn’t be.”

Addressing Systemic Racism

School Board president Lorenzo Richardson closed the public portion of the school board meeting by addressing systemic racism. He said he has planned a training program for board members to better understand systemic racism so they may affect change.

“We must dismantle the systems of racism that divide us and come together as a village and support one another,” Richardson said. “I have already spoken to the board, and I am scheduling this board to have equity and unbiased training where we can learn more how we can affect change. We will also do an equity audit to take a comprehensive look at our policies to ensure they are fair, just, and do not support systemic racism. We must unite, or racism will destroy us all. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, ‘We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.’”

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Lincoln Park

“Reopen Liberty State Park and Lincoln Park!”


Local Residents and Officials Petition Governor to Reverse Edict

Public outcry against the closures of Liberty State Park and Lincoln Park in Jersey City as mandated by Governor Phil Murphy has surfaced and is growing. The parks are closed as part of the governor’s edict that all state and county parks be closed to protect against the spread of Covid-19.

Hudson County Freeholder Bill O’Dea and Jersey City Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey have petitioned the state Department of Environmental Protection to modify the order in order to give residents a safe alternative to the “stay-at-home” anti-COVID-19 strategy.

While praising the governor for his leadership in taking steps to control the virus, the two officials suggest that some parks should be re-opened if local and county governments can enforce social distancing.

“In the case of Lincoln Park, a county park in Jersey City, we think that is the case,” they say in an April 8 letter to Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe and Matthew Platkin, the governor’s chief counsel. “In fact, in Hudson County we have the capability in our larger parks to do so.”

The letter notes that in Lincoln and other like-sized parks, the county has already removed all picnic tables, soccer goals and basketball rims and closed all playgrounds, tracks and bathrooms and, where possible, locked playing fields in order to decrease opportunities for close proximity to someone else. Even tennis courts have been made off limits given players’ potential for proximity at the net and that “even a tennis ball … can spread the disease.”

Referring to Lincoln Park specifically, O’Dea and Prinz-Arey explain, “The park was now reduced to an area that allowed dog walkers and bikers, walkers and joggers around the ring road.” And the park is now closed to vehicular traffic for four hours a day to further minimize possible gatherings.

In the two weeks since the park was reconfigured, county sheriff’s officers assigned to patrol duties uncovered only two violations of the posted park restrictions — both on the first day of the new rules: one group playing volleyball and another, soccer, and both were peacefully dispersed, the letter related.

As a compromise, the officials ask McCabe and Platkin to set up “social distancing secure park criteria” that would allow counties to appeal to the state for an exemption from the governor’s executive order.

These criteria could be the very restrictions that had been in place before the wholesale park closures — plus, for Lincoln Park, new restrictions on park hours (such as being open only six to eight hours a day), deploying sheriff’s officers and new park patrol officers to enforce the measures, and monitoring activity via 24-hour-a-day CCTV cameras.

Failure to comply with these conditions or to prevent social distancing violations would compel a park closure, they suggest.

As things now stand, the letter says, “Many good law-abiding citizens are being penalized for a few [violators]. If we can show how to address those few, then let us open the park again.”

Asked how her west side constituents have reacted to the 270-acre park’s closure, Prinz-Arey said, “It’s been a mixed response, but I would say many more are in favor of keeping it open.” Park patrols and cameras should help deter would-be violators, she added.

For many Ward B residents without a front or back yard to enjoy fresh air, dealing with the stay-at-home edict is more challenging, Prinz-Arey noted. With municipal parks off-limits, “Lincoln Park and Liberty Park are the best options.”

Also voicing support for reopening Lincoln Park and Liberty State Park for outdoor exercise was Downtown Councilman James Solomon, who has also pushed for “opening streets to pedestrians, bicyclists and emergency vehicles only” to effectively create more space for people outdoors.

“There can be clear lanes for walking and running in the same direction to reduce the potential for passing each other. It is unlikely groups of people will congregate in the middle of a street as they might in a park. Denver and other cities have adopted the initiative seemingly to good effect. I asked Mayor [Steve] Fulop’s and our transportation team to review and I hope we will implement.”

Even regular citizens are organizing. Jersey City resident Rasika W. Boice started an online petition regarding Lincoln Parksaying this:

“To close the one place where we’ve been able to consistently go and maintain a safe distance from others seems counterintuitive at best, dangerous at worst.”

If the park stays shut, it continues, “it’ll be near impossible to go outside without breaking social distancing rules, particularly as it gets warmer. The sidewalks will become more crowded. And there will be more interactions — and risk — for law enforcement, who will be called on to manage that.

As of April 18, the petition had 198 signatures.

And let’s not forget about the kids. They’ve been away from their teachers and classmates for nearly a month now. They’re missing those interactions. And they’re losing the benefits of those interactions. But nature can help. … Seeing that turtle bask in the sun, quietly following ducks across an empty baseball field, watching a hawk glide through the sky — they are also a source of joy.

What we can’t imagine bringing those same benefits, or joy, is zigzagging around the face masks and disposable gloves littering the sidewalks.

And, last but not least, with the streets of Jersey City being as pedestrian unfriendly as they are — with recent spikes in traffic injuries and fatalities — the park is the safer choice for children riding bikes or scooters.”

The petition does endorse breaking up gatherings, “reprimanding” social distance violators and marking benches and potential high-congestion spots like the pond area off-limits. “But to generally close the park to everyone is not the answer,” it insists. “It will only lead to overcrowding on the streets and sidewalks. It will hurt the community’s mental and physical health. And then, it will help the virus spread.”

Of course, the 1,200-acre Liberty State Park in Jersey City’s Greenville neighborhood is now closed as well. But given that that asset belongs to the state, not the county, many state legislators in addition to county and city officials have weighed in. Their positions are mixed.

Democratic State Sen. Brian Stack, who is also mayor of Union City, supports full closure, according to an aide. State Sen. Sandra Cunningham, a Jersey City Democrat, declined to comment. Republican Assemblyman Jay Webber, from Morris Plains, has petitioned for reopening because he finds the state’s decision hypocritical and arbitrary.

“As you have repeatedly observed, access to fresh air and exercise for our citizenry, especially during this stressful time, is paramount,” the petition says. “For that reason, safely and responsibly using our state’s open spaces should continue to be encouraged, not prohibited.”

The petition says the governor should trust residents to make “common-sense and responsible choices” to comply with social distancing rules while continuing to use state recreational resources.

“Break up and prevent use of the parks that violate those guidelines, as you should. Keep state restrooms and facilities closed, we understand. But do not close the parks altogether,” it says.

The petition further notes that bordering states like New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware have all kept their parks open. “We live in the most densely populated state in the Union, and our open space is too precious to us to have it taken away arbitrarily, especially in a time of crisis.”

Jersey City resident Sarah Ordway takes Webber’s argument one step further. In an online petition to reopen Liberty State Park, she asserts that keeping public parks closed could worsen the pandemic:

“With all city and county parks closed in Jersey City, residents found solace and social distance in Liberty State Park’s 1,200 acres of open space. Now, the only green space we had left is closed, leaving those of us without yards to resort to streets or sidewalks — spaces unsuitable for physical distancing. This decision could actually make the spread of COVID-19 worse, as our large population becomes confined to narrow strips of pavement.”

Two Downtown Jersey City residents who signed her petition heartily concur. Christy Sayre wrote that the park offered residents “our best opportunity for social distancing out of doors,” and Joe Vita commented, “LSP was the only space we can escape to and still have plenty of room for social distancing.”

As of April 18, Ordway’s petition to reopen Liberty State Park had 236 signatures versus a goal of 500.

For more on Liberty State Park, see publisher Aaron Morrill’s April 7 op-ed on closing state parks during the coronavirus pandemic and his January 4 op-ed on saving Caven Point from development.

 

Header: Lincoln Park by David Wilson/Jersey City Times file photo

 

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