To the Editor:

March 13, 2021 will mark one year our children have been out of full-time school.

One year! Try to imagine everything they’ve missed: the academic loss is obvious to any parent in Jefferson Township, and by now the emotional impacts are clear, too. They’ve also lost social opportunities aplenty, from simple daily greetings to their classmates to working on problem-solving skills in group projects to friendship-building moments during recess and extracurricular meetings. For all the suffering adults have endured since March 2020, our children have borne sub-standard education spanning two school years, and we know it must end now. As other school districts across the country and throughout New Jersey are transitioning to five-day in-person learning this month, the time for Jefferson Township to step up and catch up is now—while there is still some of the school year left.

Returning to full in-person learning is urgent. It is the only path forward for our children so they can succeed. Our Board of Education and school administrations have one job: provide school to our children, and they are failing our children. They have received a partial, mediocre education for too long. The balance of Covid-19 safety versus students’ emotional/social/academic health has been tipped toward Covid-19 safety for almost a full year. Now that we’ve proven our Jefferson schools are not a vector for Covid-19 transmission—there hasn’t been a single case of child-to-child transmission that we’ve been aware of—we need to tip the scales toward our children’s other needs. Since February 16 when all schools reopened after the post-winter break virtual closure, per my calculations from official daily emails, JT schools have been notified of 34 cases of coronavirus from virtual and in-person students. Ten cases impacted the school and none caused school closures. Clearly, Covid-19 is not the main problem in our schools right now.

This is key: Superintendent Jeanne Howe said in September 2020 that it’s easier to scale up to full time learning than scale down if problems occur, but this difficult reopening effort shows the exact opposite. We need to combine cohorts to put our kids in school five days a week, preferably full days. If we see in-school transmissions occurring, then we can go remote for two weeks or scale down to the hybrid model if it is a big crisis. Otherwise, we urge the schools and Jefferson Health Department to keep schools open and keep our kids in the safest place for them (the CDC’s words, as we all know by now).

What do we want to see from Jefferson schools?

  1. A stated goal by Ms. Howe and the BOE of reopening our schools to full in-person learning. We need to hear this is what they are ultimately working toward this year. As surrounding school districts like Sparta, Hopatcong Borough, and Mount Olive have plans to reopen fully, it is clear Jefferson schools should be following suit. It is common sense to want to have our schools open.
  2. A checklist, made public, of the items keeping us from reopening fully. Each line item needs to have a related regulation/guidance and any current obstacles. Transparency, transparency, transparency. If schools need help overcoming those obstacles, they should reach out to Jefferson parents.
  3. Jeanne Howe and the schools must address why we need a virtual Wednesday when students could otherwise be in their classrooms learning. Other districts do not have a day dedicated to “deep cleaning.” The deep clean isn’t used to clean between cohorts, or the week would’ve been structured differently (Falcon cohort is in school Monday and Thursday, Jefferson cohort is in Tuesday and Friday).
  4. The distance between students should be allowed to relax from 6ft. The NJ Department of Education’s reopening guidance “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education” suggests: “At least six (6) feet of distance between individuals in all settings to the greatest extent practicable or social distancing modifications, such as a physical barrier or turning desks to face the same direction, when six (6) feet of distance cannot be achieved….” Combining cohorts while spacing six feet apart means we cannot fit all students in their classrooms, but if we actually follow the official policy as stated here, we can! The solution is to forward face the desks—which most if not all classrooms already do—and space students at least three feet apart and as close to six as possible. If parents are unsure if spacing less than six feet is safe, rest assured the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization both recommend minimum spacing of three feet.
  5. We want our kids to have a full day of education again, complete with a lunch break. My second grader takes all of an hour and a half to do her work on asynchronous days—hardly strenuous. Many of us see academic stamina at an all-time low. We haven’t been told what the obstacle to a lunch period is. If nothing else, children can have a “second snack time” and lunches can be delivered to the classrooms on carts instead of using the cafeteria. If there are enough aides for one snack time, there are enough aides for a second snack time to allow a full day.

Why is it so urgent to get Jefferson students, like those in surrounding districts back in school full-time? We haven’t given up on this school year yet, even as we mark one year out of regular school. Our children cannot afford to lose any more time out of the classroom. Think just of high school seniors looking forward to college and trade schools in the fall. This week Jefferson Township High School sent a communication to high school families notifying them of an option for students failing English, Math, Science, Social Studies, or Physical Education. Students can complete a portfolio assessment, and if that and marking period four grades are passing, the students pass the class regardless of any failing grades the previous three marking periods. This is an example of a creative solution we’ve been looking for from the schools all year, but it acknowledges how the schools have failed our high school students. How bad have the hybrid and virtual learning options been this year for such a large number of students? Just look at the school’s desperation to help, at the 11th hour, our children pass their classes. This is absolute proof that we need to get our in-person learners in the classroom as soon as possible, where it’s proven they learn best.

If Jefferson Township schools cannot show they are capable of proving five-day in-person learning to our students now, many parents will not have confidence they will be able to provide it for the 2021-2022 school year. Just like how we were blindsided in September 2021 by delayed school reopening and virtual learning until October 15, 2021, we fear a state of unreadiness and fumbling again. JT schools have bled students to homeschooling and private school since March 2020, and if the administration doesn’t act responsibly soon, it will continue.

The next Board of Education meeting is Monday, March 15 at 7:30 p.m. in the JTHS auditorium. Jefferson parents, please make your students’ voice heard.

Sincerely,

Katherine Benfante

Lake Hopatcong, NJ

Editor’s Note: This letter was submitted to our newsroom and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Jefferson Chronicle or its staff.

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