MARLBORO – Anger over a delayed reopening of schools due to a staff COVID outbreak is boiling over with parents demanding answers, teachers defending their actions and even Mayor Jonathan Hornik stepping into the fray.
The growing frustration over COVID closures has put the teachers union and administrators on the defensive, accusing foes of spreading lies on social media. Parents braved frigid weather Saturday at a rally urging an immediate return to in-person classes.
Mayor Hornik weighed in, stating on his Facebook page Sunday that students should return to classrooms “as soon as possible.”
NJ COVID school loss in NJ: Will test help measure the toll on your child?
The back and forth is emblematic of a community roiled by frustration over COVID and how the pandemic has disrupted the lives of students, parents, teachers and staff.
“I believe it is time for the BOE and Superintendent to use all means possible to get our children back to some sort of in classroom learning,” Hornik said in his post. “Teachers need to report to the classroom to teach our children. Administration officials need to be in the office executing their roles. Action should be taken for those who refuse, too.”
But Karen Bartlett, president of the Marlboro Township Education Association, said in a joint letter with district officials sent Saturday that some attacks on her members related to the delay were unfair.
“It was extremely upsetting to learn that some community members believe (school district) staff members acted in an irresponsible, careless manner causing the delay for in-person instruction in our schools,” she stated in the letter. “Furthermore, it has been intimated that staff did so deliberately in order to delay the reopening of schools. I cannot stress enough that is the furthest from the truth.”
Bartlett’s comments were part of a joint letter to parents that included criticism from Superintendent Eric Hibbs and Marlboro Board of Education President Robyn Wolfe over recent social media attacks that accused teachers of purposely spreading the virus to delay a return to classrooms.
“We know that this specific delay was not the result of reckless staff behavior,” Wolfe’s statement said, in part. “Our faculty want nothing more than to be back in school with their students. Blaming staff for getting ill for reasons beyond their control is shameful and irresponsible. I truly hope we become more supportive of each other rather than continuing to play the ‘blame game.’”
The anger erupted when parents were told that a planned switch from all-virtual classes to a hybrid schedule had been pushed back from Jan. 19 to Feb. 1 because some staff had been infected.
Hibbs declined to provide more details on how the infections occurred, how many staff were involved, or how many were teachers. He told the Asbury Park Press that the spreading was not due to a district-sponsored gathering or a “house party” but described it as “an event.”
Monmouth County: COVID Vaccine center opens at Brookdale Community College
“No transparency whatsoever. Sounds to me the coverup is worse than the actual crime,” one post on a busy Marlboro Facebook group page said, while another added, “what is this ‘single event’, did they have a holiday party with all the concerned and scared for their lives teachers?”
Dozens of such comments have littered the group chats and other outlets for the past week, many taking personal shots at the school board, as well as teachers.
State Department of Education guidelines have allowed each district to decide when to open classrooms or keep students virtual, with the only mandate that any students who wishes to learn virtually full-time may do so.
Among the recommendations are certain guidelines for districts to follow depending on their county’s COVID Activity Risk Level, or CALI, which measures risk by colors that include green for low, yellow for moderate, orange for high and red for very high.
The most recent weekly CALI report from the New Jersey Department of Health for Monmouth County, labeled it orange, or high risk. In that case, the state recommends that schools “consider implementing fully remote learning.”
But, it adds, “If schools remain open for in-person learning … work with local health departments to identify and exclude close contacts following NJDOH guidance; refer to guidance on cleaning and disinfection. In response to ill students and staff with COVID-19 compatible symptoms, follow COVID-19 exclusion criteria; wait at least 24 hours and clean/disinfect areas where ill person spent time.”
As of Jan. 21, Marlboro had 2,163 positive cases dating back to March 2020, an increase of 360 over the prior week.
Some residents have attacked Hibbs, who has asked for a reopening of his contract and is awaiting a decision on an ethics complaint dating back to 2018 submitted by a former board member.
Hibbs has said that the lack of staff due to the outbreak made it difficult to open classrooms for a hybrid return. In the Saturday letter he defended his decision and attacked those who had made accusations online.
“I remain resolute in not divulging specific staff members/departments directly affected by this exposure. If anyone has a question as to why, the answer is simple. I have a responsibility to protect the privacy of MTPS staff,” Hibbs said in his statement. “Recent discussions on social media have been harsh regarding our staff. Some of these harsh comments have speculated that MTPS staff attended a party which caused this exposure. Let me be clear, this is inaccurate. I am concerned that a false narrative is being discussed and shared across the community.
“MTPS staff members are hardworking and have put forth maximum effort during this pandemic. They did nothing wrong. We are in a pandemic, and in a pandemic, people get sick and expose others. While opinions exist on the pandemic, our responsibility is to ensure we are making the best decisions for the safety of our staff, students, and community. We were unable to open safely, which necessitated the two-week delay of in-person instruction.”
About 30 parents gathered Saturday afternoon outside Marlboro Town Hall, which is located across from the Board of Education offices, to protest the delay.
Organizer Eileen Newman, a parent of two elementary school students, said the protest helped spread the concerns of parents: “I think the fact that we stood up as a community and people were supporting us was positive. People were driving by and some pulled over to ask questions.”
Ashlee McCormack, a kindergarten parent, said “It was brutally cold and windy which was not fun but hopefully the Board of Education will understand parents, we want to be heard now.”
The school district’s 4,700 pre-K through eighth grade students began the 2020-2021 school year in September under a hybrid model in which half of the students attended class on Monday and Tuesday mornings, with the other half learning virtually those days. The students switched schedules on Thursday and Friday and all students worked virtually on Wednesdays.
On Oct. 19, the district switched to a schedule that brought all students into classrooms for half days four days per week, remaining all-virtual on Wednesdays.
But when cases began to rise among some staff and students, and residents in general, the district switched to all-virtual learning on Nov. 23, Hibbs said, citing a “massive uptick in cases across the district and contact tracing increased.”
District officials decided in mid-December to remain all-virtual through the return from the holiday break on Jan. 4 and switch back to a hybrid model on Jan. 19. When officials learned of the newest outbreak among staff, they announced the delay to Feb. 1.
Board members spent nearly two hours discussing the issue at the Jan. 19 school board meeting and heard from several upset parents, as well as reading from emails that urged a return to in-class instruction.
Hibbs said the district will revisit the Covid scheduling issue in mid-February after the return to hybrid learning and decide how to pursue the rest of the school year: “Our goal is to open and remain open, I don’t want to go backwards.”
Joe Strupp is an award-winning journalist with 30 years’ experience who covers education and Monmouth County for APP.com and the Asbury Park Press. He is also the author of two books, including Killing Journalism on the state of the news media, and an adjunct media professor at Rutgers University and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Reach him at [email protected] and at 732-413-3840. Follow him on Twitter at @joestrupp
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Marlboro schools COVID delayed reopening sparks protests, accusations, online attacks