WESTFIELD, NJ — Not all pieces of the complex puzzle to increase in-person learning at Westfield Public Schools are in place, but district officials announced more steps in the plan at Tuesday’s virtual Board of Education meeting.

Parents’ reactions ranged from relief to skepticism after Superintendent Margaret Dolan announced the timeline and board members expressed their support. Third through fifth graders will return to school for five days of in-person instruction on March 22, according to Dolan’s presentation.

Sixth through eighth-grade students whose families chose hybrid education will begin attending rotating morning sessions of in-person instruction on Wednesdays starting March 10 before coming to school for five days of in-person morning sessions on April 12, Dolan said. Students receiving special education services will be in school for five days of in-person morning sessions beginning on March 15, she said.

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These dates are in addition to the March 15 start for kindergarten through second-grade students receiving five days of in-person instruction, which the district announced last week.

Families of students at Westfield High School, where students on the hybrid model are offered four mornings of in-person instruction, will be surveyed regarding the fourth marking period so that as many students as possible can be welcomed back, according to Dolan.

The superintendent started her presentation with a reminder that Westfield public schools have been offering hybrid instruction, which included some classroom time, since September. “That was not the case for the vast majority of districts,” Dolan said.

Her presentation also included a chart with data from the Westfield Regional Health Department showing that COVID-19 cases in town spiked to 483 people in January.

“In that January number, 24% of those people were school-aged children,” Dolan said, referring to people ages 10 to 19 who represented the most highly infected age group in Westfield. While it might have been the time to re-open for other school districts, she said “it was not the time in Westfield.”

In February, the representation of teenagers with COVID-19 fell to 22% of Westfield’s 232 COVID-19 cases, health department figures show. Across all ages, cases declined by 52%, the data show.

New Jersey is expanding vaccine eligibility to teachers starting March 15 and Gov. Phil Murphy expects schools to be open in the fall, both factors Dolan cited in her announcement that Westfield schools will welcome all students back for full-day, in-person instruction in September.

Public comments were more varied in tone than during last week’s board meeting at which most parents voiced anger, disappointment or frustration. While some parents on Tuesday thanked the administration and board, school officials still heard their share of criticism.

Julie Steinberg said that although she has sometimes disagreed with the district and board members, it was difficult to hear the “vitriol and abuse heaped on Dr. Dolan and the board” at the previous meeting.

Eric Kosta, who wrote a scathing letter to the editor in TAPinto Westfield last week, found the superintendent and board members’ comments at the beginning of the meeting self-congratulatory. The board president, Kosta said, “may be expecting a pat on the back but needs a gentle push out the door.”

Board President Amy Root did not offer a response to Kosta's remark.

Parents asked what benchmarks need to be met for students to be in school buildings for longer days.

“We’re not clear as parents what we’re striving for. What are the requirements and what will it take to get 2,000 kids in school?” asked Maria Constantino.

Lunch was a sticking point for some parents. Like in last week’s meeting, Dolan said it is clear that having students eat lunch during their school day is a high-risk activity.

While the state guidelines allow for school districts to serve lunches, students must be spaced 6 feet apart while eating, something the town’s health officer said this week can be difficult in large school settings.

The superintendent and board were asked several times whether it is possible to count short snack periods as lunches so that students could have longer in-person school days. Some mentioned the success other schools and districts have had in managing mealtimes and asked why Westfield could not “figure out lunch.”

Mary Wickens, however, said “I thank you for holding off on lunch,” and said she hopes it will not be allowed until teachers are vaccinated.

Before public comments, Dolan said the plans and guidelines parents may be seeking are on the district website’s COVID-19 hub.

“In fact, some of the information that has been requested recently has been on the webpage since March or April or August or September,” she said.

Dolan said parents who want to be involved in helping the district’s re-opening efforts can get connect with their schools’ PTOs or advocate at the state level for clearer guidelines. 

Board member Robert Garrison, who is part of the re-start committee, cautioned that PTOs are not decision makers when it comes to school reopening.

PTOs “have been attacked by some people” who have expected them to make large-scale changes, Garrison said, but they exist as an entry point for families to become more involved in the schools and help with fundraising.

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