After starting the school year with remote learning, Teaneck public schools were slated to open in person on November 16 for pre-K, kindergarten and special education classes. Many parents and children had waited months for this moment. Then at last week’s meeting, the Teaneck Board of Education voted 5-4 to delay the reopening.
During the meeting, Superintendent Dr. Christopher Irving repeatedly stated that the schools were ready to open and he felt they could do so safely, but that he would go along with the board vote. Board members in favor of the delay cited the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases—up to five-plus a day in Teaneck—as well as Teaneck Township shutting down municipal buildings, starting the same day schools were to open. Also mentioned were new statewide restrictions on restaurants and interstate sports recently put in place by Governor Murphy.
Board member Victoria Fisher said, “This is similar to where we were in March.”
But some frustrated parents tell another story. Those counting on their young children finally getting into classrooms they haven’t seen since last March claim that, with this latest delay, the school board does not have students’ best interests at heart.
David Bashevkin’s son is a kindergarten student at The Bryant School and has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for services, which he’s been getting on Zoom since the beginning of the school year. Bashevkin praised his son’s teachers and reiterated his concern for their safety during this time, but maintains that the board’s leadership has been lacking since the pandemic hit: “There are no clear policies or protocols of how to evaluate closings and openings. The board needs to employ an objective metric. Convene doctors and say this number of infections is too much and when we hit that we have to shut down. Whether or not people agree is one thing, but at least people know the decision-making process. This decision was based on headlines and a feeling that it was too risky.”
Bashevkin likens the board’s decision-making process to that of choosing to wear a sweater or jacket before leaving the house in the morning. “There were no distinctions based on age or services. It feels like a punitive measure that they did this since this is a board which has been voted out.” Bashevkin, like other parents, had already prepped his son to return to school and was now forced to break the bad news that those plans were postponed.
In a statement to The Jewish Link, board member Sarah Rappaport acknowledged the difficulties of remote learning—both academic and social-emotional—but prioritized health and safety above those concerns: “I am genuinely concerned about the strain all-remote instruction places on students and their families. I am more concerned about the health and safety of all the stakeholders in the district. So given the closing of town hall…the fact that there were two positive COVID diagnoses at The Bryant School, where many of the students scheduled to return this [November] attend, and the increasing trend, I voted for Ms. Fisher’s resolution at last week’s meeting.”
Rappaport was referring to the announcement that two teachers at The Bryant School, who had been in school preparing for the reopening, tested positive for COVID-19. In the open forum of the meeting, some parents made the case that those positive cases didn’t come from the school; rather, being in school enabled those cases to be caught, since otherwise those teachers would not have been tested.
Rappaport maintained that the risks of returning to the school building are too great, citing other schools that have opened with a hybrid model and have dealt with quarantines and staff resignations, causing “inefficiencies and long-term disruptions in the district.”
Parent Zev Darack spoke at the meeting, questioning why only public school students are not learning in person, when students in private school—half the community’s children—are benefiting from a full day of in-person schooling. Darack said that kids are not learning proper COVID-19 protocols because they are not in school, that school structure is a better environment for kids than spending time together outside of school, unsupervised, when they have not been educated on proper safety measures.
Fisher told The Jewish Link “that fewer than a third of the phase 2 students were coming back to in-person instruction and the number was dropping every day. And this was before parents were made aware of any COVID-19 infections in the school district.” Bashevkin reasoned that maybe parents are waiting to see if this initial period is a success. “There are many schools that have opened and are making it work,” he said.
Fisher, who raised the motion to delay opening schools, explained additional reasoning behind her motion: “I have been advocating since March for more socially distanced social programming, an increase in mental health support, innovations in remote learning and a prioritization of preparing special education. The superintendent has committed to doubling down on his staff’s investment in these areas and this is why I could support the postponing of in-school instruction.”
Parents, however, see the remote learning experience a little differently. “There’s been no inventiveness,” said Bashevkin.
Teaneck public school parent Deborah Blaiberg, who has been advocating for reopening schools, pleaded with the board at the meeting, “If we’re not going to reopen, can we fix the online situation so our children don’t fall further behind?”
From her position on the Thomas Jefferson Pandemic Reopening Committee, Blaiberg saw that, as of last week, the school had not yet moved furniture to accommodate socially-distanced classrooms. “That was a giant red flag,” said Blaiberg. “I didn’t prepare anything for my children to get ready to go back because I knew they weren’t going to school this year.”
President of the Board Ardie Walser, shared a response he sent to a concerned parent with The Jewish Link, in which he said that feedback from parents “is valued by the members of the school board,” even when contradictory. Walser went on to say that “This board is data driven,” though Wednesday night’s decision he conceded was “not driven purely by emotion nor purely by data. The decision making process for each individual board member is a complicated one.” Walser reminded the parent that every decision by the board is subject to change based on new information and new medical developments.
Fisher told The Jewish Link that at last week’s meeting, she asked for and the “Superintendent agreed to present a threshold to the board.” That may be too little, too late for many parents.
Blaiberg has created a Facebook group—Teaneck Public School Parents for In-Person Learning—and is consulting with a lawyer to see if a case can be made and the board can be forced to reopen schools. The group will also advocate for IEP students who want to redistrict so they can receive their state-mandated services from districts that are open for in-person learning.
By Michal Rosenberg