Jersey City schools won’t reopen before April, despite parents’ calls

Frustrated parents are calling on the Jersey City Public Schools to reopen, but the local teachers union wants staff members vaccinated before in-person learning resumes.

Dozens of parents and students called into the Board of Education’s virtual meeting on Thursday, urging the district to reopen schools as soon as possible because the children “desperately need it.” But Superintendent Franklin Walker, who will ultimately make the decision, wouldn’t commit to reopening the schools before April. He previously said the district would remain in remote learning until at least April 21.

“We heard you loud and clear,” Walker said Thursday, responding to the parents’ calls.

“As a matter of fact at the very beginning (of the meeting), that is why we spent so much time to outline each and every step that we are taking to prepare for reopening and we will continue to monitor the signs and information.”

The reopening of the district may also hinge on whether enough teachers can be vaccinated. Jersey City Education Association President Ron Greco told The Jersey Journal on Thursday that teachers are eager to go back to school, but the union wants the staff should be vaccinated before the district reopens.

“We have to be vaccinated,” Greco said. “The vaccine has got to be given to all the staff, not (just) teachers.”

That may prove difficult. The vaccine remains in limited supply, and teachers who are under 65 years old with no underlying health conditions are not yet eligible for the shot.

Leslie Sperber, whose son Zachary Lamb attends School 27, said opening now will at least set the district up for a strong September when students return from summer vacation. Zachary said he is looking at his computer screen for more than five hours a day.

“I would rather be there with other kids around me doing the same exact thing,” Zachary said. “I would rather be there and not staring at a screen to see my classmates and teachers.

Emily Campbell, another parent, said she is hopeful the schools will reopen for the sake of the students’ mental health and development.

“We really hope with all our heart that you do what is right for kids and reopen up the schools,” Campbell said. “They desperately need it. If you can’t open up the entire school district from K to 12, then, hopefully, you really find a way to at least open for preschool to second grade.”

The district’s 30,000 students have not been inside their classrooms for almost a year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The school district had planned to reopen in September but delayed the reopening as cases climbed during.

Before the beginning of the school year, the school district surveyed parents and found that more than half of them were not going to send their children back to school when buildings reopened. Over 200 teachers told the district after being surveyed they may seek leave, while 39% of the 1,649 teachers who responded said they would seek an accommodation to continue working remotely.

BOE President Mussab Ali sent a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy asking him to prioritize educators to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to help the schools re-open safely. Greco said Walker and the JCEA have sent similar letters to Murphy.

“In the Jersey City school district, we have already lost three dedicated staff members to COVID-19 and we don’t want to lose anymore,” Ali said in the letter. “In order to properly run a school district of this size, we need to ensure that our staff are protected to keep schools open.”

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