Some NJ schools switch to online-only classes

Paterson school parent Bobby Jacobs-Faison supports his school board’s sudden decision to keep buildings closed and start classes completely online in September. But it’s a controversial decision. COVID-19 hit Paterson hard with more than 7,000 total cases, and it still averages six to eight positives a week. He’d been worried about his seventh grader going back in-person.

“How the kids are going to react in school with the masks and social distancing, even when there is smaller classrooms” he said.

Parent Dana Glasspie has two elementary school grandkids and works 9 to 5. She’s among the 70% of school parents in a June survey who wanted schools to conduct classes in person.

“I think the children actually need to be out and about and socializing in an environment instead of sitting home five days a week doing virtual learning,” Glasspie said.

Paterson’s Board of Education had originally planned a hybrid opening. But Wednesday, Gov. Phil Murphy modified his executive order and will allow districts to at least “… begin the school year via remote-only instruction if they cannot adequately meet critical health and safety protocols …”

Within hours, Paterson’s board reversed its plans and voted to go completely virtual.

“A lot of parents, I feel, including myself, we’re confused. We’re confused about the process. We’re confused about the work. We’re confused about many things and we don’t get a lot of answers,” said Jacobs-Faison.

Paterson Public Schools Superintendent Eileen Shafer says the district grabbed the virtual option because it’s safer.

“Staff felt that it was risky. They were concerned about their own health, their families’ health, and parents expressed concern about their children returning to school,” she said.

New Jersey’s largest teachers union lobbied for all-remote learning, noting districts are still scrambling to establish a COVID-safe environment that’s complete with personal protective equipment and contact tracing. Paterson confronts particular obstacles with HVAC systems.

“Paterson has some of the oldest buildings in the state. And I bring that up because we know that the indoor air quality is extremely dangerous and there has to be precautions and things put into place,” said New Jersey Education Association President Marie Blistan.

But parents say they want support. The district’s reached out to groups like the Paterson Alliance to help working parents cope.

“So that their children could be dropped off at a location in Paterson and the students would go with their devices and log on to their teacher and be able to do their work and we would provide breakfast and lunch,” Shafer said.

Many districts, like Elizabeth, that opted to go remote started distributing laptops to students to prepare for online instruction. But not Paterson, ironically. Its order of 14,000 new Chromebooks got delayed until September or October, so now the district’s retrofitting old devices with new software and trying to buy 4,000 new machines in time for school.

“We received some leads that we’re following up on, and I’m hoping Monday or Tuesday we’ll be able to deliver some good news,” Shafer said.

She says a benefactor may help pay for it and Altice will fit all the laptops with wifi. It’s good news in a city that could use some.