The vice principal at an elementary school in Lakewood has been placed on administrative leave while the district reviews whether contact tracing procedures were followed surrounding a COVID-19 outbreak that officials said sickened eight staffers last month.
Lakewood’s teachers union, which has been at odds with the administration over its decision to implement fully in-person learning this year, accused the board and school officials of using the vice principal as a scapegoat.
The Lakewood Public Schools Board of Education approved a resolution to place the assistant principal at Ella G. Clarke Elementary School on paid leave at the end of a board meeting on Wednesday night. The action essentially suspends the assistant principal, with pay, through March 31, Michael Inzelbuch, the board attorney and district spokesman, said later in an interview.
Inzelbuch said that neither the assistant principal nor her lawyer had been forthcoming with information requested by Lakewood Superintendent Laura Winters regarding the school’s compliance with district-wide procedures to ensure adequate contact tracing in the event of an outbreak.
The action taken by the board, Inzelbuch said, was to help “ascertain information and documentation that the superintendent has reported she has not received despite numerous requests, and that I haven’t received when I asked the employee’s attorney.”
The review by Winters involves the circumstances surrounding an outbreak of COVID-19 during the second week of February that sickened eight staff members from Clarke Elementary, four of them teachers who were hospitalized with COVID-19, said Dawn Hiltner, a spokesperson for the union, the Lakewood Education Association. Hiltner said all four were back to work as of this week.
The school board approved the resolution without discussion in open session at the end of Wednesday’s three-hour meeting, after having addressed the issue with the vice principal and her lawyer during closed session earlier in the evening, Inzelbuch said.
Inzelbuch said the vice principal was given the option of discussing the matter during the portion of the meeting open to the public, but she declined. He did not identify the assistant principal or her lawyer by name.
Clarke Elementary’s webpage identifies the school’s sole vice principal as Madaly Rodriguez-Jones.
A person who answered the phone at the school on Friday said any inquiries had to be addressed to the district office, and Rodriguez-Jones could not be reached independently.
The New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, which represents public school vice principals, did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
Lakewood is among a minority of New Jersey districts to offer fully in-person instruction this year despite the lingering coronavirus pandemic, though remote learning is an option available to each of the district’s 6,400 public school students. The district does not control Lakewood’s private yeshivas, where more than 30,000 Orthodox Jewish children and teens are enrolled.
The public schools teachers union has objected to the district’s fully in-person approach since the start of the school year, expressing concerns for the safety of its members and of students, their families and the community at large. However, district officials have insisted that schools are safe and that 90% of district families have opted for in-person learning.
Unlike some other districts, where the union has resisted a return to the classroom, Lakewood teachers have been in school, providing in-person instruction.
Hiltner said the eight infections were traced to two of the eight sickened staffers, one of whom appeared to have contracted the virus from the other when the two had dinner together.
HIltner said the union had hoped Clarke would be closed after the administration learned of the outbreak, but the district instead decided to quarantine individuals that were eventually known to have had contact with the sickened teachers. The union does not represent the vice principal.
“At a time like this, stability is more important than trying to find a scapegoat for what happened,” Hiltner said. “Obviously, the schools have been open full-time from the beginning of the year, and we’ve been saying from the beginning that illness is inevitable. I guess they’re trying to protect themselves and defend their decision to be open full time.”
Inzelbuch, however, said the board’s action was intended to help find out what happened surrounding the incident.
“The superintendent and the board want to know what occurred, how it occurred, why it occurred,” Inzelbuch, who reiterated his frequent assertion that Lakewood’s teachers have been “heroes” throughout the pandemic. “This is not about who went to dinner with whom. This is about, were the procedures and policies followed that are required by law and required by board policy?”
He said the decision to place the vice principal on leave was not a punitive measure. But he said additional action could be taken depending on the superintendent’s review, which Inzelbuch said could be completed by the end of the month.
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Steve Strunsky may be reached at email@example.com.