LAKEHURST – Students, teachers, administrators and other staff returned to in-person education on January 19, after impassioned pleas from educators to remain remote.
The borough, which has just an elementary school, went to full remote learning on December 9 due to increased cases of the coronavirus noted in the community.
An emergency Board of Education meeting was held the week before the January 19 reopening. More than 30 people came out to sit in the marked, socially distanced bleachers of the school’s gymnasium for a lengthy discussion of concerns regarding the resumption of live instruction in the kindergarten through 8th grade school district.
Teachers, staff and parents spoke first before members of the board deliberated in closed session regarding whether it would modify its plan to return to live instruction.
Cherie Menchini, who heads the school district’s 65-member Teachers Association said “with the anticipated reopening of the school, teachers met and were able to discuss concerns with each other and it was determined that the Lakehurst Teachers Association would in a letter, on behalf of our members, present our concerns and some impressions that we had before we felt safe coming back to school.”
“Our goal is to get back to school. We want to be here. It is so much easier. I love my class this year. They are amazing and I cannot wait to get back to them and it makes it so much easier to be with them and see what they can do. That is the goal of every one of our teachers,” Menchini said.
Menchini read the letter that was sent to the School Board.
“The Lakehurst case rate is at 167 as of today which is up from 100 when we were remote in December. Considering this is a small one square mile town there are important questions that we feel need to be answered before we feel safe,” Menchini said. She noted the school’s prior closure when it had to address issues of mold in the school building which caused classes to be relocated within the borough during that time.
The number she quoted is likely from the Ocean County Health Department’s website. It shows the number of positive cases since the start of the outbreak last year. So, to clarify, Lakehurst has had 167 positive cases since March of 2020, not 167 active cases today. However, these figures also show that there were 67 new cases in just one month – from when they went remote in December until now.
By way of comparison, the borough’s population according to the 2010 census was 2,654. Roughly 6 percent of the population has tested positive at some time.
Concerns included the availability of substitute teachers. “We know we have one staff member who currently will be unable to return to the building,” Menchini said. Another concern was that new coronavirus symptom criteria have been established that will call for more students being sent home when that occurs.
“What is a staff member’s option when that occurs? How will they be paid if they have to be home to attend to their children if this happens?” Menchini asked.
“How will this affect our school attendance? When one or more staff member needs quarantine how are we going to find subs to cover those classes?” Concerns of child care availability were also raised. “We don’t know who has tested positive or who has been exposed over the winter break,” she added. “There is a definite lack of contact tracing.”
“How will we know which children should be quarantined? Who will be holding parents accountable for not filling out the health questionaries daily?” Menchini stated in the letter. She said that the Ocean County Health Department supported the idea that keeping the school remote for an additional two weeks would serve to keep the students and staff more protected.
She said resumption to full instruction at the current time would be “reckless for students, staff and all who they come in contact with.”
Board President James Malden said that the district had extended remote leaning “to 14 days after the holidays” as a precaution.
Parent Joanne Heinrichs stressed the need for students to return to class and that 18 hours to figure out child care isn’t enough. “I have nothing but respect for teachers. I have three children at Lakehurst Elementary and they have received a sub-par education over the last 10 months.”
The parent added that students with special needs were suffering even more with remote only instruction. “Special education children can’t just bounce back and catch up. Honestly 10 weeks is enough time for you to have figured this out.”
Joann Septor, a former board member who served on the school board for 18 years agreed. “I understand that COVID is a valid issue. Many people have died, many more will. There is nothing within our control that we can possibly do about it. These children lost a year of learning due to mold in our building which yes that wasn’t in our control. They need to go to school. They aren’t learning anything from sitting at a computer screen.”
Mary Ellen Hess has served as the school’s nurse for 24 years. She said, “when I spoke with the (Ocean County) Health Department they were very pleased with our school and felt we were very proactive in going remote from December 9 to January 19. That gave us extra times if we were going to have more COVID cases after the holidays.”
She said the health department feels that transmissions “won’t be coming so much from the school but the community as it is a community-based virus.” She said an official there had said it would be wise “to stay remote another two weeks and reassess where the county is.” He said the state of New Jersey, when you look at the COVID map, is orange however if you look at Ocean County separately it is red.
Menchini said teachers understood concerns about parents having to secure child care. “The Association is more than willing to work with the board to make this work. We want to be here too. We just want to find out how to do it and how to do it safely.”
The Board went into executive session and returned about 18 minutes later to announce that it would go forward with plans to have five-day live instruction as planned.
Malden said “We will see how we can make it safer with the procedures we have in place and if something goes wrong within the next two weeks or if we see things starting to go awry, we will revisit this. As of now we will reopen for all five days.”
Menchini said after the meeting, “We got them to answer our questions and we hope to work it out together. We’re fine. Our goal is to get back to school.”