Lakewood Public Schools has carefully orchestrated its plan to open schools for full-day in-person instruction on September 4th. Yet efforts to control perception and press only go so far, and at Lakewood’s school board meeting last week, things went a bit sideways.
Every day media outlets receive a flurry of emails from Lakewood school board attorney Michael Inzelbuch: my inbox today included bus schedules, a letter from the New Jersey Department of Education approving the district’s reopening plan, lists of cleaning protocols and HVAC maintenance. The message is clear: trains are running on time, reopening plans are proceeding without a hitch, and — with the exception of Lakewood Education Association, which expressed a “lack of confidence” in the district’s ability to keep everyone healthy — parents (mostly Latino and low-income) overwhelming want their kids back in school.
This all may be true (although Superintendent Laura Winters conceded that remote instruction wouldn’t work because “the district doesn’t have enough computers for all students”). Yet the video of last Thursday’s school board meeting —the first one since March where board members appeared in-person, for how can you send kids and teachers to school when the board does its work on Zoom? —shows that parents are not as sanguine as portrayed.
First a little background: the board met in a room where chairs were placed apart (not six feet but whatever) and attendees wore masks. But an unanticipated number of parents — about 100 –showed up. To accommodate them, a tent was set up outside with a video feed from the meeting and the parents were given an opportunity to ask questions. (You can see the video here, which is on the Lakewood Scoop, a platform that serves the ultra-Orthodox community. I couldn’t find a video on the district website, although the meeting was livestreamed.)
At about 14 minutes into the video you’ll see the camera pan outside. Inzelbuch speaks to Ana Faone, the translator, and he asks for questions. The audio goes in and out but you can see the parents, all wearing masks, milling around. The parents are concerned about how children will be safe on buses. (In Lakewood almost all the kids take buses to school.) Inzelbuch says the buses will be limited to 41 students (capacity is 54), all wearing masks, and the two seats behind the driver will be unoccupied. (According to EdWeek, if capacity is 56 students, no more than 28 masked students should be on a bus to avoid contagion.) An aide will be on the bus “if available.” The parents know that the same buses are used by the 37,000 non-public school students to travel to 130 different yeshivas. Those children don’t wear masks, which is one of their concerns. Inzelbuch explains that he doesn’t control those children.
Then, technological problems ensue. The parents can’t hear Inzelbuch and he can’t hear the parents’ questions. The camera cuts back to the indoor meeting and much of the rest is taken up with coaches introducing students who are eager to play sports and a doctor who says “the problems with distance learning are immense” and the district’s reopening plan is “incredible.” Also, an attendee wearing a yamulke who got a seat inside says he supports the reopening plan because Trump says the risk for children is “extremely low.”
Luckily reporter Gustavo Martinez Contreras of the Asbury Park Press was there to get more information from parents. He writes,
- Many parents express continued worry about social distancing on school buses — in a township where nearly every child rides one to school
- School officials maintain that the vast majority of parents want their children in school, rather than at home in front of computer screens. Many parents, nonetheless, express worry for their children’s safety and concern whether the school district is up to the challenge of keeping their children save.
- “It doesn’t seem safe to me,” said Yesenia García, a 33-year-old mother of three public school students. “We see non-public schools and no one is wearing a mask.Teachers, students and bus drivers. They don’t seem to care. What’s the point of all these protocols we’re following if we’re putting them in the same buses our children ride?”
- Natividad Aguilar, mother of two high school students, said: “I want my children back in school. But I feel the district is not really prepared to keep all these moving pieces working the way they want. Just look at what happened here tonight.”
- “We’re only here as their props!” a mother yelled in Spanish. “Why did they tell us to come? This is just for show!”
Sure, this is Lakewood. But nearby Toms River is opening fully-virtual. Nearby Howell is trying a hybrid, with students attending school two days a week, as is Point Pleasant. “Zoom is gloom,” says Inzelbuch. So is coronavirus.