During the Voorhees Public Schools’ June 14 board of education meeting, Acting Superintendent Michael Redfearn presented the district’s plan for a safe school reopening, including a return to five-day, in person instruction. Because Gov. Phil Murphy ended the COVID-19 public health emergency, remote learning will not be an option for the fall.
The reopening plan — necessary for all school districts to submit — will clear the way for a $1.6 million federal grant to help Voorhees schools in the fall. The board’s three goals are to maintain health and safety, continue to provide services and welcome public comment. The full safety plan is available on the district website, at https://www.voorhees.k12.nj.us/, and there is also a link where parents can leave feedback.
Redfearn’s meeting presentation highlighted a few of the ways the district will continue to protect against COVID, including temperature checks; contact tracing; hand sanitizer; sanitation lights that operate after hours; physical barriers in classrooms and cafeterias; and communication of positive COVID cases to families, staff and the local board of health.
There will also be social distancing guidelines posted around school buildings, and as students become eligible, the district will continue to provide additional vaccination clinics. Drinking fountains will remain off, but bottle-filling stations will be available.
The subject that received the most attention at the board meeting was the mask mandate. “As per CDC and/or state guidelines, students, staff and visitors will be required to wear face coverings,” reads the board’s policy.
At the board session, that was taken to mean that all students, staff and visitors will be required to wear face coverings, a policy addressed during the meeting’s public comment portion.
Parents argued that wearing masks for the duration of the school day was harmful to their children, and they shared stories of children overheating and having trouble breathing through the masks. One speaker pointed out that kids are breathing in mask chemicals all day, and that the face coverings create bacteria. Still others wanted to know whether masks would be required during gym class, and demanded to see the science and data that show they can protect children from COVID.
“There are plenty of townships that are making masks optional. Why not Voorhees?” asked parent Debra Wellings.
Several parents inquired about the removal of former school superintendent Dr. David Gentile, and expressed disappointment and frustration that the process was not more transparent. One pointed out that for the reopening plan, the board had surveyed parents, staff, Voorhees’ key communicators, PFA presidents and others, but that parents and students were left completely out of the loop when it came to Gentile.
While the board did not respond to many of the questions or comments during the public comment section, a few of its members did discuss the issue during board comments, including Kelly Cosenza.
“I just want to say to the people who come to us and tell us about their stories, no matter what your struggle is, whether it’s mask wearing or if your child has an illness, we feel all of it,” Cosenza said. “I personally feel everything you’re saying. I struggle with my own kids as well. I just want to thank you, and I will do the best job that I can for your children, as a group (and) individually.”
“I understand many parents are upset and confused at why Dr. Gentile is dismissed,” board member Dawn Wallace declared. “While I support the board’s decision as a whole, I’m a little bit disappointed that we didn’t have more time to make this decision, as there were lots of factors. And I’m also sorry that we didn’t listen to the voices of all of the stakeholders, which include the parents and the students, and I think we will learn from this experience.
“But I also do thank Dr. Gentile for his service, and getting us through this pandemic.”
The next meeting is August 30, 2021 at 7:30 p.m. at the Administration Building, located at 329 Route 73, Voorhees, NJ 08043.