School district officials in Paterson reversed course Wednesday night and announced that all-remote learning will continue “until further notice.”
The school board had scheduled a special meeting to act on a recommendation, by Superintendent Eileen Shafer, to return to classrooms May 3.
However, following a hour-long executive session, Shafer cited rising coronavirus numbers in the region and a statewide surge in COVID-19 cases attributed to in-school transmission in asking the board not to proceed with reopening.
The school board immediately accepted her recommendation.
“We want to make sure that, when we return, we do so as safely as possible,” said school board president Kenneth L. Simmons.
Approximately 28,000 students in Paterson, the state’s third-largest city, have been relying on virtual instruction from home since schools across the state first closed in mid-March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic.
It is not clear whether students will return to classrooms in Paterson before the school year ends in June. Shafer told the board that a followup assessment of pandemic data will be made in either late April or early May. She did not specify a target reopening date.
“I can’t give you a date, but what I can tell you is that if it is safe, it will open,” Shafer said.
New Jersey is in the midst of the pandemic’s third wave, with statewide hospitalizations for COVID-19 up 28% over the last two weeks. State officials are warning that the latest surge may not peak until mid-May and could extend into the summer, though more than 1 in 5 adults who live, work or study in New Jersey have been fully vaccinated.
Wednesday’s meeting began at 5:30 p.m. and was conducted via video conference, with those wishing to address the board given one minute apiece to speak.
A parent, Mary Overbay, said she accepts the ongoing delay in returning to classes, but told the board that schools should find a way to accommodate in-person graduation ceremonies in June.
“I feel as though it’s unfair to the parents … That’s a moment you don’t get to take back,” Overbay said.
“I’ve been dealing with my children home for the past year. I don’t complain because, like I said, it’s a pandemic, but that’s one moment that I feel like, as a parent, I deserve to see my child graduate and walk across the grass,” added Overbay.
In response, Shafer said that, while Paterson is awaiting guidance from the state, she is hopeful that in-person graduation ceremonies will occur.
The outcome on Wednesday was an apparent victory for the local teachers’ union, the Paterson Education Association. It had asked the board to hold off on approving the plan until members of the union could be given a tour of school buildings, which Shafer has said will not happen until April 21.
The board had originally scheduled to approve the reopening date April 14, but moved up the timeframe after Gov. Phil Murphy — who has been urging more New Jersey schools to return to classroom instruction — made phone calls to Shafer and union president John McEntee.
Mary Demoor, a 25-year teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, told the school board she remains concerned about building conditions, though Shafer has said all are being retrofitted with various, COVID-19-related safety precautions.
“While nothing would make me happier than returning to my classroom and speaking directly to my students, I’m afraid that it’s not safe,” Demoor said, adding that “while the extended remote experience has been challenging, rushing to stop at the expense of the safety is a poor choice.”
Paterson is among several urban school districts that have been unable to resume in-person instruction due to the coronavirus pandemic. Officials in Trenton said last month that students will not return to classrooms before May 3.
Newark and Jersey City have extended all-remote learning until April 12 and April 21, respectively. In Hillside, the school district announced in January that students will continue learning from home for the remainder of the school year.
Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund, offered support for the decision made by Shafer and the school board.
“There is so much about this COVID-19 virus and infection that is outside of our control. It’s important that we minimize the risk to our children and the adults who serve them,” Grant told the board.
Please subscribe now and support the local journalism YOU rely on and trust.
Rob Jennings may be reached at email@example.com.