WESTFIELD, NJ — Nearly 600 parents attended the Westfield Board of Education’s virtual meeting on Tuesday, some livid at what they see as incomplete planning for a return to in-person learning in the district.

While board members did not engage in much direct response, public comment continued for several hours and became tense, with some parents claiming the district was “failing” its students and saying they considered leaving the district for private school.

Schools Superintendent Margaret Dolan announced at the meeting that kindergarten, first and second grade students whose parents choose will return to school five days a week beginning March 15.

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“Westfield is now categorized in the moderate activity level and, with the new CDC guidelines, we can look forward and plan to bring students back for more in person instruction,” Dolan said.

The first and second-graders in the hybrid cohorts will receive four hours of in-person instruction per morning on those five days, with remote learning in the afternoon, Dolan said. Kindergartners in those cohorts will receive 2.5 hours of daily instruction in person, she said.

“Our focus at this point has been on our youngest learners,” Dolan said. “We have heard from teachers and parents that these are the students who are struggling the most. We are also working on plans for inviting cohorts A and B from grades three through five to return to five days a week and will announce the projected date for this in the near future.”

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Dolan said the district’s middle schools are examining their schedules and discussing what options exist. Hybrid cohorts at Westfield High School have been in the building for four days a week or four-hour sessions since Feb. 5.

Dolan and the board tried to preempt questions from the public by addressing some common concerns they had heard directly from parents or seen on social media.

“One thing was made very clear: eating is still considered a very high risk. The guidance is still that students should not remain in school for lunch,” Dolan said.

She said three medical professionals on the district’s restart committee, district physician Dr. Susan Kaye; Westfield Regional Health Department Director Megan Avallone; and district nursing coordinator Carole Stavitski advised against lunch in schools.

Plexiglass dividers will need to be installed in areas where it is not possible to have 6 feet of space between student desks, Dolan said.

“Other districts are using plexiglass, and we’ve heard from them,” she said. 

But many parents were concerned that the ordering of plexiglass hadn’t been discussed earlier and that it could stall in-person instruction in grades beyond kindergarten through second grades.

“Exactly who are you learning from and what did you learn from other schools?” asked Elizabeth Rodriguez. She said Holy Trinity School, a private religious school, which is also in Westfield, managed to re-open successfully.

“It’s humbling that this town I moved into 13 years ago with a wonderful school system has failed,” she said.

High school parents, such as Darren Composto, said fewer high school students are opting for in-person days because the experience still involves screen time and headphones. 

“As long as these kids are going to school, and it’s still screen time, they’re not going to want to go to school,” he said.

While Assistant Superintendent Paul Pinero said high school students are still receiving high scores on AP tests and there is no anecdotal evidence that students are falling behind, parents were skeptical.

“They are going to be competing with other students who haven’t been sitting in their bedrooms for a year,” said Maria Constantino.

Several parents demanded Westfield lead other districts rather than following, and for the board to provide more transparency and take ownership of the slow and confusing roll-out of in-person instruction.

Board President Amy Root said notes were being taken as the parents spoke and that their comments were not being ignored. 

Dolan countered the parents' claim that Westfield is failing its students, while recognizing that the situation is atypical.

“There’s no doubt this isn’t normal, and it’s not what anyone wants,” Dolan said.

“Any time we can take a step forward, I promise you we will do that,” she added.