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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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Opinion: Invest in Our Schools Now!


This is a guest opinion piece by Brigid D’Souza and Dr. Jyl Josephson who are parent leaders with Jersey City Together’s Education Team. Ms. D’Souza is the parent of two children at PS 3 and the creator of CivicParent.org (and a writer for this publication) and Dr. Josephson is the parent of a child at PS 26 and an associate professor of political science, women’s & gender studies at Rutgers University Newark.

For the last two and a half years, Jersey City Together’s Education Team and parents across the city have been engaged in a focused fight to increase local funding for our public schools. For the first two years, our work helped create incremental progress — an extra $5.3 million in 2018, another $6 million in 2019.

But this has not been nearly enough.

Jersey City Public Schools is a 40-school Pre-K through Grade 12 district serving nearly 30,000 students. Our public schools are the most diverse institution in the city. Seventy percent of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch while 38% of our students are Hispanic, 27% are Black, 18% are Asian, and 14% are White.

This is the diversity our political leaders lift up every chance they get. It’s the kind of institution in which they should be clamoring to invest.

But, for the last decade, while gleaming skyscrapers and luxury apartments have gone up across the city, Jersey City has instead stripped educational resources from the children — mostly black and brown, mostly lower income — attending its public schools.

At a time when state funding is repeatedly being cut and our schools are already $125 million underfunded, Jersey City sends only 24 cents of every dollar of property taxes to its schools. Last year, we saw the immediate impact of this when our schools lost 250 staff, including 160 teachers.

It is utterly unconscionable.

This year, however, the Jersey City Public Schools have had a real leader in Superintendent Franklin Walker.

Superintendent Walker stepped out and offered a budget that spoke to the real needs of the children of the district, adding $50 million to the budget.

His proposal would rehire the hundreds of teachers we lost last year, hire 13 new social workers, 3 new high school counselors, a mental health specialist, and other support staff. It would invest in English Language Learners, visual arts, STEAM programming, and make targeted investments in some of Jersey City’s highest needs schools.

These resources will be all the more important next year as we deal with the fallout from this pandemic.

But the reaction from the political class in Jersey City has been both swift and exactly what you might expect in Hudson County politics.

One BOE trustee said new teachers aren’t needed because “class sizes don’t matter.” Another trustee was dismissive because the people who called in to support the budget were “just moms.” More than one claimed they didn’t want to take anything away from children, while at the same time proposing cuts that would do just that.

In short, Superintendent Walker is being told to lower his sights. Our children, it seems, are not worth the investment.

While it may seem politically expedient now to demand the district reign in local property taxes, we believe we will look back on this moment and see these calls as more than just cowardly. They are proposals that will actively harm our city’s most vulnerable residents.

Education policy experts agree that budget cuts during the Great Recession hurt kids like those in Jersey City Public Schools. Now, they argue, is precisely the time to invest more in our public schools, particularly if we claim to care about inequality.

There is still time for board trustees to make the right choice. But time is running out.

It is always a good time, and a responsible decision, to invest in the next generation. But the current moment demands that investment even more.

 

Header: Public speaking at the January 30 Board of Education meeting, courtesy Jersey City Together’s Facebook page

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School Board Prepares Contingency Plan for Reopening Schools in Fall


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.

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City Gears Up For “Aggressive” Anti-Virus Campaign”


Rumors and speculation notwithstanding, the specter of the coronavirus (Covid-19) has – so far – touched Jersey City only minimally, based on reports made earlier today by municipal officials.

Nonetheless, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop is taking what he called aggressive steps to minimize the potential of the virus, which the World Health Organization has labeled a global pandemic, from taking root in the multi-ethnic community which ranks No. 2 in population in the state.

Among the precautionary measures being enacted are cancellation of city-sponsored events, including the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade; cancellation of private events on city property; appointment-only visits to City Hall; waiving (for now) permit parking renewals; mandatory customer sign-in sheets for eateries and entertainment venues that hold more than 25 patrons; and a 10 p.m. curfew for any and all commercial establishments that have a liquor license.

And in the public school system, which has an enrollment of approximately 30,000 children spread among 40 schools and early-childhood centers, Superintendent Franklin Walker said the local district is conferring with state health and education officials about possible school closings and remote instructional programs. In the meantime, Walker said school personnel have been disinfecting classrooms, bathrooms and buses.

“We always want the city to be a leader and proactive in protecting our residents,” Fulop said. “In this case, we are taking reasonable steps and giving clear direction to the community on expectations. We are asking our residents to help us in keeping our community safe.”

During a press conference held in the city’s Office of Emergency Management in the firehouse at 715 Summit Ave., Fulop reiterated that there have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus reported.

This, he said, despite a scare on Wednesday stirred by the unscheduled appearance at City Hall of an unidentified visitor who told security personnel that “his father had tested positive” for the virus, the mayor said.

But city Public Safety Director James Shea later added that the male visitor – who was wearing some type of surgical mask – never got into the interior of the building. Instead, Shea said, he was taken for a medical exam.  Shea didn’t elaborate.

A preferred scenario, Shea said, would have been for the man to have called a 24-hour hotline – 201-547-5208 – or to have checked out the city’s dedicated webpage, www.jcnj.org/coronavirus, for information and continuous updates.

The city is advising persons who suspect they’ve been exposed to Covid-19 to self-quarantine and to call the city’s hotline. “To avoid overwhelming our medical facilities, and if you believe you may be infected, DO NOT use public transportation to our hospitals. We will direct you on where and how to go,” a city press release says.

To date, four people in Jersey City have been tested for the presence of the virus, according to Dr. Shatrughan Bastola, Jersey City’s health officer. “Three of the four were absolutely negative,” Bastola said, “and one we’re waiting for results from the CDC (U.S. Center for Disease Control).”

It’s unclear whether the City Hall visitor was included among those statistics.

Bastola said he was aware of 14 or 15 cases of self-quarantined individuals in Jersey City, all of whom, he stressed, were exposed healthy individuals.

Jersey City Medical Center and LabCorp, which is also based in Jersey City, have both been approved to test for the virus by the Centers for Disease Control and have already begun doing so, according to Stacey Flanagan, city director of Health & Human Services. Test samples are forwarded by courier from those sites to a New Jersey public health environmental lab in Ewing Township for analysis, Bastola said. Results are then made available to the local health officer, he added.

Safeguards are also in place at Liberty International Airport in Newark, according to Flanagan and Bastola. CDC staff stationed at the airport check passengers who’ve been to “hot zones” for possible quarantining. But even if those passengers are judged to be asymptomatic, their names and relevant information are provided to local health authorities in their respective cities for monitoring by those authorities.

 

Header: Emergency Management Officials and Mayor Steven Fulop, photo by Ron Leir

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