Linden forum covers a wide range of back-to-school safety issues

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LINDEN, NJ — Issues of health, government mandates and logistics were discussed in depth on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 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 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,” 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.”

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 coordinator of special projects Antoinette Modrak, who oversees the district’s before- and after-care programs.

Parents in the audience and online raised a variety of questions and concerns regarding rules and procedures going into the coming school year. Information shared 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 masks and social distancing. Because of the current surge of the COVID-19 delta variant and the fact that children younger than 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated, mask-wearing will likely be mandated for all students and staff.

• 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.

• The district will not mandate vaccines for students or staff. 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. Close contact with an individual who is or is suspected to be COVID-19 consists of spending 15 minutes or more during 24 hours within 6 feet of that individual, she said. Students in a K-12 classroom who are 3 feet to 6 feet apart and consistently wearing masks are not considered to be in 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 has a vaccination clinic every Wednesday at the Linden High School Academy for students 12 and older.

• Before care and 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 stock of masks for adults and children to last through much of the school year, he said.

• Hazelton responded to a question about checking temperatures as students enter school by saying that the administration had 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. 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 are not personally affected, 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 the students.

“It’s life or death at this point,” she said. “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 until and after the start of the school year. Anyone with questions or concerns should send them to the district’s dedicated COVID-19 email:

Hazelton thanked those 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.”

Photos Courtesy of Gary Miller