EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - With East Brunswick's being only one of two districts in Middlesex County to offer a hybrid model for school re-entry this fall, Thursday night's online regular meeting of the Board of Education - the second meeting in a week following Tuesdya's Town Hall - provided some opportunities for residents and school employees to voice their serious concerns about any form of instruction taking place on school grounds. Some offerings were pragmatic, others emotional, as residents used their opportunity to speak to the Board of Education and the East Brunswick administration about the general feeling that re-opening schools - at least right now- would not be safe.
The meeting begin with a two-hour long closed session with the BOE and administration, then moved to an hour-long open platform for the public. The public portion began following a few remarks by Superintendent Victor Valeski about the training that teachers received during the summer in all curricular areas, moving them toward greater facility with online instruction and creating a "virtual learning environment" planned for East Brunswick.Valeski noted that 1,359 teachers were offered -in total - 605 hours of online professional development.
Valeski also confirmed that bus passes would be available online after 3:00 on Monday, August 31. Teachers and staff return to school on Wednesday, September 2. Classes, whether online or hybrid, will begin on Tuesday, September 8, following the Labor Day weekend.
BOE President Vicki Becker moderated the Public Portion and allowed each speaker three minutes to present his/her thoughts, as per Board policy. There would be no response from BOE members who were there to listen to stakeholders' concerns, as per BOE policy.
Lauren Broderson, a 20-year teacher in the Est Brunswick Schools, felt that the current ventilation system in the schools does not fulfill the needs driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, creating an unsafe environment. She was one of several speakers who discussed the temperature in the classrooms, an ongoing problem within the district especially at EBHS, that is difficult to regulate and causes a problem. Broderson also wanted to know who cleaned the classrooms when teachers moved to different rooms.
Chris Finnegan, a teacher in East Brunswick for 11 years, urged the BOE to consider fully-remote learning and to use "caution and restraint" when making decisions. Finnegan also pointed to the inadequacy of the current filtration system throughout the district.
East Brunswick Education Association President Dana Zimbicki referred to a letter she sent to the BOE outlining the Association's concerns. She was supporting the 1% of EB's teachers who are immuno-compromised and urged that those teachers be placed in virtual-learning classrooms. Zimbicki cited specifications from the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) that showed that the filters currently used in the buildings' HVAC systems could not "capture COVID particles." She also noted that EBHS has no air-conditioning and that provisions should be made for teachers to be able to open windows and creens should be installed so that more air could flow freely into and out of the rooms.
Kerry Hennessy inquired about the results of testing used during summer sports practice and a possible exposure of a student on the soccer team: "You didn’t share that 2 days into workouts a student in boys soccer had an exposure. This was a tremendous breakdown of the procedure. This student athlete came to work out after having a COVID test, before getting the results, but he had his temperature checked, and he filled out his questions. Assessment should always be a part of any plans."
"Who will monitor the quarantine room?" asked Kelly Nickels. She expressed concern that students who had a temperature or felt ill would be sent to a location to wait for a parent pick-up, which the district says should occur within a half hour of the report. "Who will sit with that child?" Nickels also requested that the BOE consider "the collective good."
19-year Special Education teacher Rori Reiss said that the prospect of returning to school during the pandemic was "agonizing" and noted the closure of colleges and public schools in other states following openings in August. "The risk outweighs the rewards," Reiss said.
Second-grade teacher Jodi Kroll asked for a delayed date of re-entry with the hybrid format, suggesting that all students begin with the fully virtual format for the beginning of the school year.
Erinc Sahin, a parent who is familiar with sterile manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, said that the safety plan is heavily reliant on the use of masks. However, he asserted that the wide variety of masks used by children may not be effective against COVID 19 and that some masks were not up the grade required for use in a closed environment like a school.
Wendy Segal said, "I will do my duty to the students and staff and keep my children home" during the active period of the virus. She asked if there will be administrative walk-throughs to monitor the application of the new rules and sanitary standards.
Rachel Thomas said that the teachers have had an insufficient amount of training for virtual education and that the summer has been "overwhelmingly stressful" for the staff. She descried the wasted time during the summer that teachers could have spent doing voluntary training. Thomas recognized that parents often expect teachers to have an expert level in educational technology when most teachers are not at that level.
The meeting closed, with objections aired but no answers given.
Afterwards, Board member Jeffrey Winston told TAPinto East Brunswick, "The remarks made by teachers in the public session were moving. While I understand that the Governor’s mandate requires schools to open, it also allowed for districts to self-evaluate their readiness. With County approval, districts have the ability to defer in person instruction. I could never imagine my parents, both career educators, to stare down a decision that could be so negatively impactful on their well-being. Teachers have a big decision to make. I tried my best, and now all I can do is pray for them and all concerned."
At the prior meeting, Dr. Joyce Boley presented an overview of what a hybrid educational day would like as the plan rolled forward. However, the emotions and serious concerns of the teachers, staff, students, and parents involved in this new way of teaching and learning will certainly add to the anticipated difficulty of implementing these enormous changes.