VERONA, NJ — A coalition of district parents gathered on Friday to make their voices heard about accelerating a transition back to more comprehensive in-school teaching in Verona.

The parent group, Verona Voices for More In-Person Learning, held a rally to compel administrators "to put actionable plans in place, as they have yet to present a plan," according to a statement from the group. More than 150 Verona parents and students turned out on Friday afternoon.  

According to the group, Verona Voices for More In-Person Learning is advocating for:

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The delivery of an actionable plan with clearly defined benchmarks, in consultation with public health officials, to increase in-person learning for students K-12 this spring and fall.

Be creative and innovative in order to support more in-person learning (e.g. infrastructure planning and openness to reexamine 6-foot guidelines once benchmarks are met) to allow less cohorting and more in-person time.

Consistency in policy. Protocols are allowed in extracurricular programs (e.g. less than six feet of spacing) are not allowed in class settings.

Clear and transparent communication from the administration to the entire district community – parents and teachers.

The acknowledgment of the very real social, emotional, and academic impact remote learning is having on children at every grade level.

One of the organizers with a background in child psychology has warned of the potential dangers of keeping kids out of the classroom.

"As a clinical psychologist who has been conducting neuropsychological and educational assessments in private practice in New Jersey for over 20 years, I have seen first-hand the colossal toll that remote learning is taking on children of all ages, both in terms of their mental health and their academic learning over the past year," said Nancy Corral Ziebert, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the co-founder of Positive Developments. Associates in Psychology in Millburn. "Last year, my practice saw a 30 percent increase in therapy sessions, entirely due to the stress of the pandemic, and, because we primarily see children, we can deduce that this was due to the stress of school closures in particular. In school districts’ efforts to address one health crisis, they are secondarily creating a mental health epidemic that will have a lasting negative impact on an entire generation of children."

Another organizer who is a district parent dismissed the notion that hybrid learning is an adequate solution six months into the current school year.

"The narrative around 'Open the Schools' is evolving. The majority New Jersey districts at this point are considered open in some form of hybrid model, but 'hybrid' is no longer a laurel that Administrators can rest on," said Mike Dupree, Verona Elementary Reopening Committee parent and Verona Voices for More In-Person Learning organizer. "Most hybrid models--like what we have in Verona--are inadequate and offer students less than a third of their typical in-person learning time."

Another organizer called for more leadership on the issue.

"In a community like Verona, we are fortunate to have an engaged and proactive school district family," said Toral Patel Jendi, a Verona Reopening Committee parent and Verona Voices for More In-Person Learning Organizer. "One that has come together for a year ensuring our students’ education, health and well-being remain a top priority, continuously pivoting and adjusting to meet the daily needs. Unprecedented times also shed a spotlight on the greatest areas of opportunity and challenges leadership to serve the community beyond the standard. We need bold, visionary, trustworthy leadership to continue to put our students at the center of the problem we are solving for."

Verona parent Kristen Donohue said she oped there would be more flexibility in the district's COVID guidelines.

"Our current hybrid plan is not sustainable. We are seeing many districts in New Jersey and around the country offer more in-person learning safely and our administration must move swiftly to put plans in place to do the same in Verona," said Donahue, another reopening committee member and Verona Voices for More In-Person Learning Organizer. "For example, our administration has been inflexible in their adherence to students being six feet apart while masked, but this is a guideline and not a requirement. The CDC’s new guidance recommends placing desks six feet apart 'when feasible' with children wearing masks and the American Academy of Pediatrics says greater distance 'may outweigh the potential benefits' if it reduces classroom time."