I-Team: A Tale of Two New Jersey School Districts

Both are financially challenged. So why are classrooms closed in one and open in the other?

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Classrooms in Lakewood, New Jersey, have been packed with students five days a week since September. Classrooms in Paterson, New Jersey, have been shuttered the whole time.

So what’s behind the drastic difference in how the two school systems approach education in a pandemic?

New Jersey’s largest school districts – including Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson – have often blamed systemic inequities for their decisions to remain all-remote or postpone hybrid learning. But, in the comparison with Lakewood, those differences don’t really exist.

Like the big urban districts, Lakewood serves thousands of mostly lower-income Black and Brown students. Lakewood suffers from overcrowding — federal data show both Lakewood and Paterson have student-teacher ratios hovering around 11 to 1. And that same data show Lakewood actually spends $2,700 less per pupil, on average, than Paterson. Despite all the disadvantages, Lakewood has had sufficient resources to open classrooms up while Paterson students remain locked out of their school buildings.

“This is a pandemic problem,” said Michael Inzelbuch, Lakewood’s School Board Attorney. “There are two ways to deal with a problem. ‘Yes I can’ or ‘No I can’t.’ We took the approach ‘Yes I can.’”

Most parents in Lakewood seem satisfied with the result. Almost 90 percent of the district’s students have opted for five days in-person instruction each week.

Emilia Cuzco, a school employee with two kids in the district, said she chose in-person instruction for fear students learning in front of a computer at home would suffer dramatic learning loss.

“Those kids are never going to get that back, those years or months that we lost,” Cuzco said.

Like lots of districts, Lakewood implemented a slew of new health protocols to minimize COVID risk. There are mandatory temperature checks before students get on buses and plexiglass on every desk. Over the summer, the district even built five large trailers to serve as extra classroom space to accommodate social distancing. But even with that extra space, Lakewood never followed the CDC’s previous recommendation of 6 feet between students. In some classrooms, even the CDC’s current 3-foot distance recommendation is a challenge.

“We’re doing everything we can that is in our control to have a safe environment and I believe that gave us the confidence to keep the buildings open,” said Laura Winters, the Lakewood Superintendent.

Perhaps the biggest difference in the way Lakewood and Paterson have approached school reopening is in the posture they’ve taken with their respective teachers unions. In Paterson, school leadership has mostly accommodated union demands. In Lakewood, Inzelbuch said he threatened to sue the teachers union long before the school year began.

“We were taking the union to court. We weren’t going to wait for them to take us to court,” he said.

Kimberlee Shaw, President of the Lakewood Education Association, confirmed school leadership took an uncompromising approach to negotiations and dismissed some of her union’s safety concerns outright.

“Their minds were set. They were opening regardless,” Shaw said. “Nothing we said could convince them otherwise.”

Shaw says the result was a risky classroom roll-out that should have been phased in more gradually. Between July 6, 2020, when Lakewood summer school programs re-opened, and March 23, 2021, the union tallied 214 COVID cases among Lakewood students and 157 infections among school staff.

“We’ve had hospitalized staff,” Shaw said. “That, to me, is a problem.”

School administrators in Lakewood say classrooms are among the safest environments and most of the COVID cases among students and staff came from exposure in the surrounding community.

Paradoxically, in Paterson, school officials blame infection rates in the surrounding community for keeping school buildings shuttered.

Last week, Paterson parents learned of yet another delay in the city’s plan to re-open school buildings. May 1 had been the target date for hybrid instruction, but on Wednesday, Superintendent Eileen Shafer announced fully remote learning would continue “until further notice.” She blamed rising community transmission and an increase in school-linked outbreaks across the state.

“At present, the conditions are simply not favorable enough to reopen,” she wrote in a letter to parents. “During the last month, the number of new cases has increased by nearly 50 percent in Paterson and Passaic County.”

According to health department data, the 14-day positivity rate is about 11 percent in both Passaic County, where Paterson is, and Ocean County, where Lakewood is.

Shafer said Paterson Schools would review infection numbers again in early May to determine whether a return to classrooms is possible before the school year ends in June.

In Lakewood, school officials say there is no turning back. Classrooms there will remain open till the end of the school year. Inzelbuch said there’s no reason other districts shouldn’t follow suit and open up five days a week.

“Candidly, it can be done. Lakewood did it. There is nothing special about Lakewood other than our staff who are special and our parents. Anywhere can do it.”

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