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Teaneck’s Decision to Open Schools Remotely Upsets Families

Some Teaneck public school parents would rather have their children learn remotely this upcoming school year; others would rather arm their children with masks and hand sanitizer and send them to school. But now, they no longer have a choice.

As expected, on Wednesday, Aug. 12, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order requiring schools to open for in-person instruction for the upcoming school year. However, the order also stated that districts that could not meet certain health and safety protocols would be permitted to provide remote-only instruction. Health and safety protocols, as outlined in the governor’s recovery plan, “The Road Back,” include wearing face coverings, seating students six feet apart and limiting sharing of objects and school equipment. There is no requirement to test students for the virus, and the CDC and state health department do not recommend that students be tested daily.

Teaneck public schools is one such district that decided to operate remotely until a reevaluation on November 12, at the end of the first marking period.

The Teaneck Board of Education had sent out a survey to parents in June that revealed that 30% of families were leaning toward not sending their children to school. A parent focus group conducted by the superintendent in mid-July also revealed that parents favored a hybrid learning model, and that they would like to have the choice of opting in or out of in-person education after schools open. However, this month, the board released a statement saying that the August decision to go all-remote was made in order to prioritize the health and safety of students and staff members.

The abrupt decision to go all-remote was not met with universal support. Parents of the Teaneck school district staged a rally outside Jefferson Middle School in Teaneck on Monday, Aug. 17, in opposition of the decision.

Deborah Blaiberg, a parent of four children, three of whom are Teaneck public school students, initiated calls for the rally. She said she was deeply frustrated with the actions of the district, and felt that this is just one of the many instances where the board has taken actions contrary to parent viewpoints. She believes that the school’s reasons behind operating remotely are flawed and worries about the quality of education her children are getting from home.

“The district is using its get-out-of-teaching-children-in-person-free card,” she said.

According to Teaneck School Superintendent Christopher Irving’s return-to-school plan, Teaneck schools aren’t reopening because Teaneck was an epicenter of the virus during March and April, some parents and faculty were concerned about returning to school, and because neighboring towns are above a 3% transmission threshold.

The number of cases in Teaneck were at 171 as of August 18, as reported by Bergen County Executive James Tedesco––compared with 867 cases on April 21. Teaneck has held at a lower than 1% transmission rate for many weeks. “It’s actually lower than that;.5% to under 1% most weeks this summer,” said Mark Schwartz, Teaneck’s deputy mayor, who is also the Jewish Link’s co-publisher.

Schwartz reported that he was also at the rally. He believes that the district’s choice to teach remotely will only further an achievement gap between private school and public school students.

“My heart also bleeds for parents of children with special needs,” he said. “They’re required to dedicate 100% of their time to online learning when it is the school’s responsibility––not the parents’––to educate these children.”

It would seem more fair, Schwartz explained, if the school gave parents the option of sending their kids to school or keeping them at home.

“Some parents might say they’re not comfortable (sending their children to school),” he said, “but at least they’d have the option.”

David and Leora Secemski, who also attended the rally on Monday, have a son with special needs who attends Teaneck High School. They said they were extremely upset with the district’s decision to go remote, especially since the initial hybrid program the district had planned would have been more manageable.

According to the school plan, special education needs will be met by providing online classes in accordance with the student’s schedule, including small group instruction tailored to each student’s level. Special education teachers and other service providers will be available during normal school hours for support. For students with an individualized education plan (IEP), the school plan explains that service providers will be in contact with parents to ensure that the students receive the same level of services remotely.

The Secemskis’ son struggled to learn from home this past school year, and David said that this year will be no different. His son needs in-person instruction in order to learn, and the school hasn’t provided him with any specific education plan to meet his needs.

“For [the school] to claim that [it’s] going to provide the services he needs through Zoom or Google Classroom just shows that they don’t know anything about him,” David said. “It doesn’t work for us at all. It’s not possible for him to learn.”

David explained that for two weeks, the school has been saying that it’s working on providing a special service, but it still has nothing to show for it, and school is fast approaching. The first day is Tuesday, Sept. 8.

David and Leora were planning on dropping their son off at the drop-in center program, but are now unsure if they qualify under the added eligibility standards. Leora is a teacher, and an essential worker, but David will be working from home.

Still, David believes that even if his son did qualify, he would not be receiving the right level of education to meet his needs.

“I don’t know how the person who’s monitoring the students in the drop-in center will get him to learn on a Zoom camera when (Leora and I) can’t do it with him,” David said. “How is one stranger with 50 children to watch going to get him to engage?”

For some children, the district will be starting a drop-in center for students from kindergarten until eighth grade that runs from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m at no cost to families. The center will be located at Bryant and Whittier elementary school and space is limited to 50 per location. Teachers will be teaching remotely while paraprofessionals monitor the students. A principal and a school nurse will also be in the building.

A similar after-school program will also run in the same locations, but with a limit of 60 per location. A cost will be levied.

According to the board, priority for these programs is given to the following: children whose parents are essential workers, homeless children, those on free and reduced lunch applications and those who can commit to the entire marking period. The children must also test negative for the virus before the start of the program, and parents must complete a wellness check form daily before dropping off children.

Blaiberg feels that the strict enrollment criteria required for families looking to enroll their children in the drop-in program leaves a lot of families in a bind, but she feels lucky that her children are old enough to monitor themselves and work independently.

Other parents have children who require more support and attention.

Rachel Secemski has twins of preschool age in the Teaneck district. She now has to find a preschool for her 4-year-old twins, and she is already feeling the financial burden of this unexpected expense. She is using money she had saved up for future yeshiva tuition.

She also has a child with special needs at Lowell Elementary School and was upset to hear that the school is no longer planning on providing instruction four days a week for students with special needs. She has seen from experience that virtual learning won’t work for her son.

“It’s not something he can learn from; we see he’s made no progress since March,” she said.

While she knows the district is going to reevaluate after the first marking period, she has a feeling that come November, especially during flu season, the school will likely not reopen.

She has already met with an advocate to file due process against the district so that her son can be placed in a district that can better cater to his needs.

“We just want what’s best for our kids,” she said. “We understand that teachers are fearful of returning, and that parents are fearful of sending their kids, but this is not what’s best for our son, and we’re really disappointed.”

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