SCOTCH PLAINS — Superintendent Joan Mast, Ed.D., began the November 19 Scotch Plains-Fanwood Board of Education meeting with a statement regarding her recent decision to move to all-remote learning. “I know the decision to shift instruction was not supported by all,” said Dr. Mast. She continued by saying that while she understands the disapproval, she must “err on the side of safety.”
“Dr. Mast had the full support of the board in this decision,” said Board President Dr. Karen Kulikowski. Dr. Kulikowski shared insight as to the timing of the decision, another point many parents have questioned. As of the previous board meeting on November 12, the district had planned on opening the middle and high schools for their first in-person day on Monday, November 16, which changed rapidly over the course of that weekend. New statistics began to roll in on Friday and Saturday morning, said Dr. Kulikowski, which concerned the board and the district administration.
According to Darlene Tomasulo, the district’s Covid-19 nurse coordinator, there was an 11.8-percent positivity rate in the community and 28 of the community’s 112 active Covid-19 cases were in the district’s schools (14 students and 14 staff) at the time of the meeting. School districts use the color-coded guidance from the state and are advised to consider closing schools while in the orange zone, said Ms. Tomasulo, which the local area entered last week.
The staff cases had caused an issue with safely staffing the schools, according to Peter Pitucco, director of human resources. While there were 14 staff members with a positive test, others have had to quarantine. These absences would be in addition to more conventional absences, such as non-Covid-19 illnesses, meetings or personal days. Attempting to fill those positions with a combination of substitutes and internal coverage (teachers on their preparation periods) had become “untenable,” said Mr. Pitucco.
Many Scotch Plains-Fanwood parents called in during the public comment portion of the meeting to voice either support or criticism of the decision. One parent said she received a call letting her know that her child’s teacher had tested positive for Covid-19 and was grateful to know steps had been taken to keep her child safe. Others stated that they “fully support” the closure to keep staff and students safe.
Parent Lauren Reid said that she supported the closure but that the district needed to communicate more effectively and empathize with parents who needed to scramble to find childcare in under 24 hours.
Others, such as vocal critic Danielle Wildstein, recent BOE candidate Dr. David Levine and local pediatrician Dr. Sharon Filler, questioned the decision. Dr. Filler said states that have a high positivity rate (around 20 to 40 percent) have a 0.15-percent transmission rate in schools. “We need to stop looking at community spread and start focusing on school transmission,” said Dr. Filler.
Speakers also requested specifics as to when schools could reopen, especially if they can be opened earlier than January 19. Dr. Mast said she did not have any precise metrics but needed to see the positivity rates return to a moderate level for a period of time.
Board member Amy Winkler acknowledged that everyone feels the stress of the current situation and urged the community to be positive for the children because they will reflect the emotions of those around them.