After more than a year, the ripple effects of COVID continue.
During the public comment portion of the May 24 Gloucester Township Public Schools Board of Education meeting, parents and staff shared the tough realities of living and learning during the pandemic. As people spoke, it became clear that COVID has presented problems that affect them in different ways. One person’s “problem” was another’s solution.
Somerdale resident Jessica Marchese, an educator and product of the township, started off the conversation by noting the struggles kids have faced in school this year as they chose whether to to learn in person or remotely. She described how in person students had to wear a mask all day, even during recess in the heat or outdoor sports.
Marchese encouraged the district to send a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy requesting he lift the mask mandate for in person learners.
“Remote teaching is not effective,” she argued. “We know this.The mask mandate is causing more harm than good. At what point is this going to end?”
“Even though [Gov. Phil Murphy] did lift significant things today … schools are still not part of his new executive orders or mandate,” said Superintendent John Biladeau.
In response to Marchese’s example of soccer students forced to wear masks, the superintendent replied: “The administration has been giving mask breaks, so I don’t know what you witnessed, I’m not challenging; it probably happened the way you described it. But we will reinforce administratively that mask breaks should be given.”
“Children are not the spreaders of the disease,” Marchese responded. “It is politically driven, and I am not okay with politicians deciding what is best for my children’s health.”
The mask mandate was also addressed by bus driver Joanne Arcaini-Heine.
“When a child tests positive for COVID, and they’ve exposed their drivers and their aids and we have to quarantine for 14 days, we’re not being paid for it,” she explained. “It wasn’t by our choice to quarantine. Not being paid makes it difficult for some of the people that I work with … Some of them only have this board of education check coming in. They can’t survive being out 10 days, two full school weeks, and not being paid.”
Educator Chip Pildis followed up on the issue later in the council meeting.
“I just feel for the bus driver,” he noted. “We paid our police officer for six months but didn’t do what they were contracted for, but we can’t pay an aide and a bus driver?
“It just shouldn’t have to be a law. It should be common sense: Take care of our employees.”
“This is why we appreciate when people make comments and bring things up, so there can be further investigation by the administration and hopefully fair outcomes for everybody,” Solicitor Dan Long responded.
Board President MaryJo Dintino asked the superintendent to look into the issue and get back to her.
Another resident, Dina Henry, asked the board to consider having summer educational programs be virtual, in addition to in person sessions for students whose parents both work 9 to 5 jobs and are unable to take their kids to school themselves. Bilodeau agreed to a discussion.
During board comments, there was a consensus among members Ellen Reese, Mary Ann Johnson and Jennifer O’Donnell that if they had more information before meetings, they would be able to make more informed decisions. The three all voted no on approving professional services for the 2021-2022 school year and echoed each other in their reasoning. Reese and Johnson both felt that having a workshop meeting to get questions answered and have a discussion would have been helpful.
Although the board previously hosted workshop meetings, according to its website, it hasn’t hosted one since March 2019. The agenda item still passed, but opened up the conversation for things that could be done better in the future.
“I was left with the choice of ‘I don’t even know who applied’ and ‘I don’t know if there were better candidates out there,’” Reese explained. “In a situation like this, the workshop meeting is where you would sort through, and those questions could be answered, and perhaps I could have voted yes on something so important. … I just feel like I have to hunt down a lot of information and I’d like it to be a little more forthcoming.”
“I don’t rubber stamp, and I go through my paperwork,” Johnson added. “I go through it with a fine-tooth comb and I look through everything … Our job is to do the best we can for these kids and our district, and I think a workshop would have been a help for me to make a decision.”
The next regular council meeting will be held on June 28 at 7 p.m.,, at the Ann Mullen Middle School.