WESTFIELD — A nearly four-hour Westfield Board of Education (BOE) meeting Tuesday night packed in discussions of school mask mandates, the results of the Start Strong Assessment from Fall 2021, and pizza. The board also came under fire for moving the executive session, which was on the agenda for the end of the meeting, to the beginning, causing audience members who had lined up to speak to wait.
Parents did not hold back about ending mask-mandate policies once and for all, especially after Gov. Phil Murphy, noting “the significant decline of statewide Covid-19 metrics,” announced that “masks and facial coverings will no longer be mandated for students, staff, or visitors in schools and childcare centers, effective Monday, March 7.”
Superintendent Raymond González, Ed.D., sent out a communication to the community and read it at the start of the meeting, saying that the Westfield school district will work toward the goal of allowing mask choice on March 7, but not committing to it as other neighboring districts have done. He stated, “We all remain cautiously optimistic that the Covid activity in our schools will continue to decrease and our vaccination rate for eligible students will continue to rise, thus making masks optional a reality by March 7, barring any unforeseen setback.”
“I was ecstatic and relieved to hear the Governor announced the end of the mask mandate, and I urge you to do the same for our children and our district,” said parent and teacher Laurie McCormack. “As an educator, I have seen the negative psychological and emotional effects.”
Father of two Michael Pittman, who showed up at the meeting after listening on YouTube, expressed his frustration and disagreement with the parents demanding an end to the mask mandate.
“I’m here because there are a lot of people in this town,” Mr. Pittman said. “The views of the number of people that showed up here…do not represent the entire town nor all of the parents.”
After Mr. Pittman spoke, the board took a recess when audience members became boisterous. The board also paused to let everyone know that they could not eat while in session, after an audience member brought pizza in for attendees. This situation amused some but bothered others, with one crowd member calling the action “childish” behavior.
Andrea Taylor, a teacher and parent in the Westfield district, shared her story about masks and cancer. Her son was diagnosed with leukemia 10 years ago; she said they started wearing masks even before it was “a thing.”
“He learned remotely, before Covid made remote learning a thing,” recalled Ms. Taylor. “My son actually had the reaction, when the schools went remote: ‘finally, everybody will be like me.’”
In an emotional message, Ms. Taylor appealed to the audience, the BOE, and everyone in attendance to “stop” the mistreatment of one another. She urged them to instead support each other and do kindness for someone.
“As my family has learned through our cancer journey, kindness and support help us through dark times,” she said.
Before the microphone was opened to the audience, the Start Strong Assessment Results from Fall 2021 were presented. The New Jersey Department of Education states that the assessment is intended to “produce information that should be used as a standards-based complement to the resources used by educators in their classrooms to evaluate the needs of students.”
Paul Pineiro, Ed.D., assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the Westfield Public Schools, explained that the test’s purpose is to evaluate the academic support the students need.
“Start Strong assessment is designed to give us an idea of a starting point for students in the fall so we can adjust support as needed,” Dr. Pineiro said.
The tested areas for the assessment were English Language Arts, Math, Algebra I and II, Geometry, and Science. The results categorized those students needing academic guidance into the following sections: Those who may need strong support, some support, and less support.
The graphics shown at the meeting indicated that Westfield students do not necessarily need academic support compared to their peers in districts around the state.
“Westfield’s students, overall, have more students designated as needing less support,” Dr. Pineiro said. “And at the other end of the performance spectrum, fewer Westfield students were designated as may be needing strong support.”
Board of Education President Brendan Galligan noticed the students’ tendency to score lower when the data is broken down into subgroups based on race and ethnicity. “What are we doing to close those gaps?” Mr. Galligan asked.
Dr. Pineiro assured that, historically, there were similar trends concerning performances within subgroups in previous tests, but they continue to use the data to determine individual students’ needs.
“The company that would be doing the audit for us is a professional research company that has just done this, thousands of times,” Dr. Pineiro said. “We think that specific to the idea of subgroups’ performance, they will be able to provide us with some additional insight on how we might help the subgroups.”
Board Vice-President Sahar Aziz further asked about the measurement and impact of the last two years of hybrid teaching on student learning ability.
“Of course, it would be best for that to be supported by some data,” Dr. Pineiro answered. “But also, by the end of the year I would say with confidence that our teachers, along with these folks, will really have a great sense of where we are at.”