The socially distanced Jefferson Board of Education. (Photo by Geoff Magliochetti)

Jefferson Township High School students raised their voices at the latest Board of Education meeting on Monday night, advocating for a return to full-time in-person learning. Their concerns echoed the calls to action from several area parents at the prior meeting on February 24.

Students took to the podium during the public comment portions of the meeting, voicing their displeasure with a lack of clarity and guidance from the board and the unstructured settings of virtual learning. The Jefferson area has not held a full week of in-person learning since the onset of the ongoing health crisis in March 2020.

JTHS seniors were particularly passionate in their statements, noting that the burden of college prep and ineffective distanced learning was taking a toll on mental health. Several senior activities, such as holiday assemblies, have already been wiped out and there’s fear that the prom could be next. The students’ pleas were backed by a supportive, socially distanced crowd of parents in the JTHS auditorium, some of whom bore signs in support of their demands.

“I’m very scared for my future because of the way I’m being taught,” one student told the Board. “We do the bare minimum. I think it’s very unfair. I just wish (the Board) would look back at how you were taught and how your high school career went and where it brought you, up to this stage. I feel like you would not be sitting on this stage if you got the education we got. I wish you guys had respect for us and our parents, because they are very frustrated and upset.”

“Senior year, the year everybody talks about, we don’t get that year because it’s all virtual,” another student added. “We’re just asking, if you can just try a little bit harder for us, because it means a lot. Prom is a big deal. I know you guys had your prom. We just want ours.”

When technical difficulties with the virtual meeting platform delayed questions from beyond the auditorium, one student felt this was the perfect metaphor for the frustration experienced by students going through virtual lessons, a comment that drew applause. Students and parents alike have spoken out against virtual learning, citing the lack of structure and consistency.

“We’re here to learn, we’re not here to sit here and manage a schedule,” an attending student said of the inconsistent learning. “The constant changing, literally every day of the week, of what we do in class is kind of distracting…it’s kind of annoying, it’s really not good.”

Superintendent Jeanne Howe stated that the elementary schools were potentially on track to open for four days, with Wednesday off for deep cleaning, but this did little to soothe concerns of those gathered.

As Howe announced during the meeting, a plan for hybrid learning was approved by the New Jersey Department of Education. Starting April 12, pre-K through fifth grade would open on early dismissals, and cohorts would be eliminated. Howe mentioned that it was easier for elementary schools to combine cohorts due to smaller class sizes and desks in larger classrooms, and that area middle schools and high schools have been unable to maintain such numbers to fully open at a reduced three feet of distancing.

Parents of high school students reiterated their own concerns to the board, echoing their statements made in February.

“There has been no progress. I have a daughter, she is a senior in high school with an eleventh-grade education,” said Monica Soules, one of the parents who spoke at each of the last two board meetings in Oak Ridge. “Anything’s got to be better than now. There’s no transparency. It’s like a seesaw. One day you’re on, next day, you’re off. We never know what to expect.”

Soules, a hairdresser, has spoken to young people in the area about their experiences and feelings over the past year. She said that the most common factor by far has been depression.

“They want to be in. They’re worried about college,” Soules said. “So-called online learning is not learning. Kids are feeling it. There’s no enthusiasm anymore.”

“Being able to learn from other kids, I think that’s the biggest thing that’s missing,” another parent, Katherine Benfante, added. “You learn from each other. You compare what you’re doing with other kids. You can’t learn that at home…Something clearly is out of sync, and the answer to us is obvious: get the kids back in the classroom five days a week, full days, back to the standard curriculum. Four early dismissal days is better than what we have now, and we’re hopeful we get to five full days for the next school year.”

After the meeting, both Howe and Board President Matthew Millar praised the students for their courage and eloquence.

“I am very proud of the students. They were very articulate, very well-spoken, represented the student population very well, and they exercised their civic duty,” Howe said afterward. “They did exactly what they were supposed to do. I’m very, very proud of the students for having the courage to come and speak at a Board of Education meeting, to a group of adults in front of a group of adults. That takes a lot.”

“I feel for the students, I feel for the parents. These are terrible times, unprecedented times,” Millar said. “The kids were very vocal…I’m glad the students are speaking up, and they should. The generation should speak up. If they’re not happy with what’s going on in society or in their school district, they should speak up.”

The Board of Education will next meet on April 26.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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