MONTCLAIR, NJ - Parents continue to voice their frustration with the MEA over reopening schools, citing concerns of childrens’ mental health and academic performance. The Board of Ed remained silent on the matter during the Board meeting Wednesday.
The Board’s first ever Student Representative, however, remarked that there is still a lack of student say on the situation. “I will work hard to bring more student voices forward,” said Genesis Whitlock.
A parent of a first-grader, Alison stated her strong support for an “immediate introduction of K-12 hybrid learning for families who choose it in the safest parts of the district.” She explained how her son suffers from boredom, and requires parental guidance with his assignments.
“If your parents are working they cannot help as much,” said Mackenzie, a third-grader. “My brain really hurts from being behind a screen all day.” Other than her, Genesis was the only other student to speak at the meeting.
Andrew Gideon, another commentator, acknowledged her sentiment. “I don’t think there’s anything I can say better than Miss Mackenzie. We need to have our kids, especially the youngest, back in buildings.”
One commentator, a healthcare worker and parent of four, explained how she felt her children were caught in a “power struggle” between leaders in Montclair. When Covid first hit, her hours were reduced just before the hospital where she works became flooded. “I was called to stand in the back of a room with sickly Covid patients. The thought of returning to work was terrifying,” she said. “I weighed the risks and benefits. The actual risk was negligible.”
She called for a return to in-person learning, after explaining how her experience shaped her take on ventilation being a major source of contention.
“Whatever has been asked of my children has been done. Wear a mask, sit on a Zoom for four hours a day, and some people are worried about kids wearing a coat in class?” she continued. “If one feels that ventilation is truly the issue, then I challenge you to question yourself as you go to malls, friends’ and families’ homes, hundred-year-old churches … ventilation reports are not being requested at these places.”
Multiple others expressed concern over childrens’ future wellbeing, the achievement gap, and depression amongst students as a result of prolonged online learning.
“The CDC says vaccines are not required to open schools. Even if you don’t go to the grocery store, someone is in a warehouse packing up food for you. Do teachers in the MEA use the essential services of these businesses?” said Heather, a parent. “It’s time we talk about how we reopen, not if.”
The first part of the meeting focused elsewhere on the district. In light of Black History Month, President of the Board Latifah Jannah recognized Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Ponds and David Cummings, a former Board member and current fourth ward councilman who works in collaboration with the MFEE and the Young Black Fathers.
“We have only had two Black superintendents,” she noted. “We are here tonight to show our support for Dr. Ponds and what he is doing as he moves to ensure the reopening of our schools.”
She also recognized Naomi Kirkman, who recently retired from her position as principal at Bradford Elementary, and who had served at Bradford for over twenty years.
Board Secretary Emidio D’Andrea later delved into the details of the district’s preliminary operating budget for the 2021-22 school year. The main areas of appropriation for the budget are in employee salaries and benefits, as well as “regular” education and special ed programs. The total increase in the budget will be about $9,000, whereas the total current deficit hangs around $6 million. D’Andrea stated that there is no anticipation of additional state aid.
“The district administration is going to be working hard over the next week over where we can make reductions in the budget and maintain our educational programming,” said D'Andrea.
Board member Eve Robinson clarified that this operating budget does not include any improvements for a “long-range facility plan,” which would instead be under a capital budget.
The new operating budget will be due to the County Superintendent by April 8 for final approval.