Evesham board of ed meeting invites community feedback

Amid plans for a teacher rally to address safety issues with the district’s reopening plan, Evesham Township’s board of education met at DeMasi Middle School but virtually broadcast its regular meeting Aug. 20.

The session began with updates. Superintendent Dr. Justin Smith addressed newly released Cohort A, B and R (fully remote) assignments for the district’s nearly 4,500 students, and what’s needed to make the reopening plan work.

“It was a gargantuan effort on behalf of our administrators, supervisors and summer staff,” Smith said. “This is a very new process; it’s a very complicated process in an ever-shifting landscape. It will require some patience and some understanding as we work to meet each family’s needs.”

As the district’s schools prepare to open Sept. 8, Smith promised “continued communication between our parents and our principals, our parents and our buildings as we continue to tweak” the cohort arrangement. He also noted that bus assignments and procedures will be available soon and urged those with any questions to reach out.

With parent surveys revealing that 72.5 percent of the district’s families plan on their children physically returning to school buildings, Smith discussed how those numbers changed the original framework of the reopening plan proposed on Aug. 5.

Board members also recognized the careers and dedication of four recent retirees. Smith presented brief biographical highlights, thanking Susan Gardner, Randi Gordon, Carol Jennings and Lisa Mondrosch for their years of service to the district.

Then, for more than two hours punctuated by a constantly ringing phone indicating how many people wished to speak during the virtual session, the open public comment portion of the evening gave parents and faculty a chance to do so. Teachers, bus drivers and other school employees, many of whom mentioned the support of the Evesham Township Education Association (ETEA), called to voice their lingering doubts about the safety of the reopening plan and to ask what will be done about teachers who were threatened by community members for voicing their fears.

District teacher and ETEA President Deborah VanCuren was the first to speak, and did so on behalf of ETEA’s members.

“We are in a pandemic and lives are at stake,” she said. “Our association continues to have many concerns over the plan to return to school in September.”

VanCuren cited the ETEA’s issues with schools’ HVAC [Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning] systems, livestreaming, cleaning and lunchtime procedures. She cited nearly a dozen Burlington County schools that have already opted for a 100-percent virtual start of school and noted a “growing list” of fully remote schools in Camden County.

VanCuren urged the board to reconsider a hasty in-person reopening when there are so many safety measures left wanting, and implored them to begin the school year virtually so the district has time to put all safety measures and protocols in place.

“After reviewing the checklist for the NJ DOE’s [Department of Education’s] anticipated minimal standards, there are some items in some of the critical areas that haven’t been checked off,” VanCuren said. “Are you confident that you will accept any liability for any area not in compliance?”

Several public-comment callers spoke of fear among many of the 700 in-person staff members regarding the reopening plan. One district aide confronted the threats made against teachers who were planning to protest outside the evening’s meeting.

“We canceled that rally out of safety concerns,” VanCuren said. “A lot of employees have taken a lot of the heat from parents. I want to know what the district is going to do to address the nastiness directed at the teachers and educators who are simply trying to ensure that our students learn in the safest environment possible.”

Board President Joe Fisicaro responded by condemning any attempts to silence anyone’s voices or refuse them the right to assemble.

“Nobody has the right to muscle out somebody else’s voice: No voices should be silenced,” he noted, adding that he was “disheartened” to learn  the conditions under which the rally was canceled.

“I would hope that in our community — because we’re going to have to work together — we can cut the nonsense out and allow people to speak their minds and opinions.”

Fisicaro ended the meeting by assuring those in attendance that the evening’s meeting and the board’s decisions are not final and that discussions remain flexible and ongoing.

“Don’t think of this as the finale,” he said.

The next board of education meeting will be Sept. 24.