Medford board of education offers potential plan to reopen schools

Proposal won’t be approved until COVID cases are on the decline

Alyssa Biederman The Sun: Medford parent Christine Tomkus speaks to the Board of Education on Monday, Nov. 16.

For months, Medford Board of Education meetings have been ground zero for a fight by some parents to bring back five-day schooling.

After sessions with passionate arguments for or against a full in-person option in Medford Township schools, Superintendent Joseph Del Rossi presented a potential solution on Monday that would allow kindergarten students to return to school for half-day, in-person learning five days a week.

The proposed plan would split kindergarteners into two cohorts: one morning and one afternoon group. The kindergarten plan would act as a pilot program to possibly bring back first and second graders in the future.

But there’s a catch: The plan would cost about $350,000 in unbudgeted staffing and transportation costs and won’t be approved unless regional COVID cases stop increasing.

During the week of Nov. 9, Medford schools had three staff members and two students who tested positive for COVID. Eighty-nine individuals had to be quarantined, including 44 staff members.

“We’re not immune to this,” said Gale Ferraro, the district’s director of educational support services. “We’re going to do our best job on a daily basis to keep our buildings open and keep our students coming to school in front of their teachers as much as we possibly can.”

Parents at Monday’s meeting largely expressed their disapproval of the plan’s slow implementation and spoke at length about bringing all students back for in-person instruction, with barriers or other measures in place as an alternative to the district’s current 6-foot social distancing rule.

“Do you think this is a big joke?” asked Christine Tomkus, a Medford resident with four children in the district. “You’re taking advantage of our students by not getting them back into the classroom. It’s just ridiculous.”

Board attorney Frank Cavallo said bending state and county guidelines to use barriers would put the district in legal jeopardy if a student or staff member were to contract the virus.

Parents at the board meeting said they worried about their children’s mental health and ability to do well in school while learning remotely. 

“Our kids are wrecked,” said Ray Adamson, another district parent. “We’re talking about our kids being destroyed so you can avoid a little risk?”

Parent Andrea Kornick presented to the board a petition she created with about 830 signatures from community members requesting students go back to  five-day, in-person learning.

Del Rossi said even if 80 percent of parents were willing to assume the risk of students or faculty contracting COVID, he would have to consider the opinions of teachers before he would be comfortable enough to fully reopen schools.

“I’m hearing from a small group of parents here,” Del Rossi noted. “I don’t know what the other 2,400 or 2,500 parents feel on this issue. I’ve talked to people that feel exactly the opposite.”

Several meeting attendees spoke against the plan, including Nancy Kasputis, a fifth grade teacher at Kirby’s Mill Elementary School.

“I’m just asking you to see it from a teacher’s perspective,” Kasputis said. “I hope I am supported by the board, by my experience and scientific principles.”

“This is a short-term thing,” she added. “Our kids are going to suffer, but if we don’t work together they’re going to suffer more.”