Forum Covers Wide Range of Back-to-School Issues

Issues of health, government mandates, and logistics were discussed in depth on Tuesday night at a Town Hall Meeting regarding Linden Public Schools’ safe return to school in September following a school year marred by the COVID-19 pandemic and virtual learning. 

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Marnie Hazelton hosted the meeting at School No. 1, with about 50 guests in attendance and about another 200 logged in to participate virtually.

“I thought it was very important that we had some type of forum before the start of the 2021-2022 school year,” Dr. Hazelton said at the start of the meeting. “As we get closer to September, my office and all the schools in the district have been getting emails and phone calls from concerned parents regarding our plans for September. And as everyone knows, information regarding COVID-19 and various variants changes daily.

“Tonight we want to hear from the community. We want to hear your concerns and your questions. What we’re able to answer, we will answer.”

Dr. Hazelton was joined on the panel by Joyce Hirsch, the district’s head nurse; Dr. Joseph Schulman, the chief medical officer for the district; Lawrence Miranda, supervisor of buildings and grounds; Vineet Parikh, pharmacist with St. Georges Family Pharmacy; Roger Rotondi, head athletic trainer; Eloy Delgado, president of the Linden Education Association; and Antoinette Modrak, coordinator of special projects, who oversees the district’s Before Care/After Care program.

Parents in the audience and online raised a variety of questions and concerns regarding rules and procedures going into the coming school year. Some of the key information that was explained at the meeting included:

– The current plan is for school to return to an in-person, full-day schedule, with full lunch periods. There will be no virtual option.

– The district will follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New Jersey Department of Health regarding the wearing of masks and social distancing. Because of the current surge of the COVID-19 Delta variant and that children under 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated, mask wearing will likely be mandated for all students and staff, Dr. Hazelton said.

– Dr. Hazelton stressed that all plans are fluid. Health guidelines change frequently, and as September nears, a full reopening plan will be released and updates will be made as needed.

panelists at town hall

– The district will not mandate vaccines for students or staff. (UPDATE: All staff members must get vaccinated for COVID-19 by Oct. 18 or be tested 1-2 times a week, as mandated by Governor Murphy’s executive order.) A district survey of employees in May drew 681 responses. Of those, 518, or 76 percent, reported being fully vaccinated. The district is planning another survey to get updated data.

– Students and staff who are vaccinated and come into close contact with a COVID-19 positive individual will not need to quarantine if they are not symptomatic, Hirsch said. A close contact consists of spending 15 minutes or more over 24 hours within 6 feet of an individual who is COVID-19 positive or suspected to be positive, she said. One exception by the CDC is that students within a K-12 classroom who were 3 to 6 feet apart and consistently wearing masks are not considered to be a close contact, she said.

– The district continues to urge anyone who is eligible for the vaccine to get vaccinated. St. Georges Family Pharmacy offers vaccinations and COVID-19 testing every day at the pharmacy, and holds a vaccination clinic every Wednesday at the Linden High School Academy for students 12 and older.

– Before Care/After Care will be offered on a limited basis based on state rules for the number of students allowed, Modrak said.

– Every classroom in the district will be equipped with two air filtration units and hand sanitizer, Miranda said. Custodians will continue to disinfect touch points throughout the school day, and the district already has a large stock of adult and child masks to last through much of the school year, he said.

town hall from audience perspective

– Dr. Hazelton responded to questions from parents about checking the temperature of students as they enter school by saying the administration discussed that option but found that it wouldn’t be feasible with large numbers of students and that many who are COVID positive do not show symptoms. But she said the district will continue to evaluate temperature checks as an option.

– Temperature checks are used by the Athletics Department for smaller numbers of students to adhere to regulations from the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, Rotondi said.

– The district reports all cases of COVID-19 infection to the community, even to those who were unaffected personally, out of an abundance of transparency.

The meeting ended with an impassioned plea from Board of Education member Jennifer Flemming, who asked that everyone take COVID-19 seriously for the sake of our students.

“It’s life or death at this point,” she said. “Over 700,000 people have died, and they deserve to have someone stand up and speak on their behalf. Not only do I care about the children, I care about the children’s parents, I care about the children’s teachers, I care about the cafeteria staff, the office administration. Our lives are important here in Linden.”

The discussions will continue up to and beyond the start of the school year. Anyone with questions or concerns should send them to the district’s dedicated COVID-19 email hotline: LPSreopen2021@lindenps.org

Dr. Hazelton thanked everyone who participated in the town hall meeting for remaining respectful of differing opinions and for working constructively toward a safe return to school for students and staff.

“We are grateful that you took time out of your summer to join us this evening,” she said. “You could have been anywhere else, so thank you.”

– Story by Gary Miller

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