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  • Writer's pictureKristin Guglietti

Board OK’s St. Joseph Academy’s usage requests

Approved for football and basketball

The Hammonton Board of Education approved St. Joseph Academy's facility use request for the William T. Capella Football Field. (Courtesy Photo)

HAMMONTON—The Hammonton Board of Education approved St. Joseph Academy’s requests to use the Hammonton Middle School’s gym and football field during the August 5 meeting.

Board President Sam Mento III called the meeting to order and all board members were present at the Samuel A. Donio Memorial Library except Kelli Fallon who was absent.

Among agenda items concerning finance, the board resolved to:

• Approve to renew Lease of the Former Hammonton Middle School to St. Joseph Academy, Inc. for the sum of $77,250 for a term of one year.

• Approve the Security Aid Agreement with St. Joseph Academy. The items being purchased will be through Non-Public Security State Aid Funding.

• Approve the Technology Aid Agreement with St. Joseph Academy. The items being purchased will be through Non-Public Technology State Aid Funding.

Among agenda items concerning programs, students and miscellaneous matters, the board most notably resolved to:

• Ratify the following Use of Facilities Requests, which were approved subject to receipt of all necessary documentation reviewed by the Risk Management Consultant, who has approved all Certificates of Insurance unless noted otherwise: Middle School Gyms – St. Joseph Academy, [Athletic Director] Anne Marie Mercado, Basketball Games, December 22, 2021, January 3, 6, 14, 27, 2022, February 11, 15, 2022, March 2, 4, 2022; 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Middle School William T. Cappella Football Field – St. Joseph Academy, Mercado, Football Games, Saturday, October 9, October 23, November 13 and November 20, 2021; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

During the meeting, Mento noted that the use of facilities request for the high school portion, specifically the football field, would be changed to the middle school’s William T. Capella Field.

Mento said the use of facilities requests are “pending recommendations of the buildings and grounds committee after they meet with the [Hammonton] Hawks and the other parties that are involved.”

The middle school gym is also pending recommendations from the buildings and grounds committee along with the Hammonton Bulldogs and St. Joseph Academy.

Before voting, there was a discussion on the use of facilities requests.

“I believe the way that this was presented to the board was not the proper procedure to follow. Only some members of the board knew what was going on and were in the discussion. I didn’t find out about this until early in the week. I think it would have been better if the presentation was made to the entire board so the entire board knew what was going on,” Board nember Barbara Berenato said.

Thomas Attanasi then discussed his thoughts.

“Before I vote, I just want to share my feelings right now because of what has transpired in 72 hours. First there’s representation here from St. Joe Academy here who I uphold in the highest respect for what they’ve done for the school and for the community. Second, it’s my belief, nobody other than Hammonton High School students who play in our football program should be on and play on the Hammonton High School football program. There’s a lot of pride, hard work that goes into developing from the Hawks age all the way up there and that should be done there,” Attanasi said.

The Hawks team then broke into applause.

“I can’t applaud the Hawks organization enough for what they have done for this community and for our kids in taking over that complex and making it the best in South Jersey for the kids at that level. [more applause] I too feel that should be first and foremost for all of our kids, however, I signed up for the board. I’ve been in education for 34 years. I’m a superintendent of two school districts and I’m here for kids, so I will vote yes tonight on that pending everything goes through with the Hawks organization, St. Joe representation, our buildings and grounds, so we can find something compatible that we can work for the best interest of everybody and moving forward there’s got to be a better way of presentation before this board. I vote yes,” Attanasi said.

Along with Attanasi, board members John Lyons, Waterford Representative Al Pangia, Board Vice President Michael Pullia, Raymond Scipione, Folsom Representative John Thomas and Mento voted yes to the facility use pending recommendations with buildings and grounds and representation from the Hawks, Bulldogs and St. Joseph Academy.

Berenato and Erica Polito voted no on agenda item 125 3b1 regarding the Hammonton football field.

Linda Byrnes abstained from agenda items 124 and 125 2d. Agenda item 124 was for approval of a request from Kristyn Byrnes-Frankel, Healthy Kids Running Series, to waive all the use of facilities/custodial fees for the use of the middle school fields on Sundays starting September 12 and ending October 17, 2021. Agenda item 125 2d was for approval of Middle School Fields Facility Use Requests – Hammonton Stick Chicks, Patricia Donio, Field Hockey, Monday to Thursday, August 16 to October 28, 2021, 5:30 to 7 p.m.; Saturday, October 16, 2021, 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.; Healthy Kids Running Series, Kristyn Byrnes-Frankel, Sunday, September 12 to October 17, 2021, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Lyons voted yes with an exception to agenda item 118, which was approval of the submission of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (N.J.S.I.A.A.) Membership Resolution for the 2021-2022 school year.

During the meeting, Superintendent of Schools Robin Chieco presented the schools’ plan for the 2021-2022 school year.

A parent survey was posted on the district’s website to collect information to determine the level of concern related to student health and safety. There were about 1,400 responses collected.

“Thirty-five percent of the people responded to the survey; 65 percent did not,” Mento said.

Response totals were as follows: Early Childhood Education Center – 165; Warren E. Sooy Elementary School – 300; Hammonton Middle School – 330; Hammonton High School – 590.

One of the questions reads, “When schools resume in September, students will be seated three feet apart and that’s the current recommended social distancing however there may be situations where this cannot be maintained how concerned are you about your child’s physical health?”

Of the responses, 46 percent of parents aren’t concerned, 31.7 percent are somewhat concerned, 13.5 percent are concerned and 8.9 percent are extremely concerned.

Another question asked parents to indicate their preference regarding masks in schools during the 2021-2022 school year. At the time of the survey, masks were not required in schools for the upcoming school year.

Of the responses, 66.4 percent feel that masks should not be required in school but remain a personal choice and 33.6 percent feel that masks should be required in schools.

“Basically it was two to one against wearing masks in our schools,” Chieco said.

The follow up question reads, “If masks are not required, how concerned are you about your child’s physical health while attending school?”

Of the responses 42.9 percent are not concerned, 29.7 percent are somewhat concerned, 15 percent are concerned and 12.5 percent are extremely concerned.

Due to numerous issues related to the COVID-19 Health Screening Questionnaire within Parent Portal, Chieco said they are going to change that procedure and provide COVID-19 information at the beginning of the school year and ask the parents to screen their children before sending them to school.

The survey question asked if parents will follow this new procedure and won’t send their child if they’re exhibiting any symptoms of COVID-19. The majority (98.3 percent) responded yes.

“For September our main goal, and this has been from the beginning, and with the board and with the administration is to have full-day in-person instruction and we’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure that happens, so currently there is no mask mandate. However, right before we came into our meeting this evening, I heard that the governor is making some type of an announcement tomorrow about requiring students to wear masks K-12,” Chieco said.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced on August 6 an indoor mask requirement for beginning of 2020-2021 school year for K-12 students, educators and staff.

“I will say personally I am fully vaccinated, but because I know that children cannot be vaccinated, anytime I am with children I will be wearing a mask because I would not be able to live with myself if I unknowingly was carrying the virus and got a child sick,” Chieco said.

Other important information regarding the first day of school includes the following: Quarantine protocols will be followed as per the Atlantic County Department of Health recommendations. Mitigation procedures will remain: hand sanitizing stations in all classrooms, air purifying units in all student areas, multiple daily cleaning of high touch surfaces and one-way stairwells. Three-feet of social distancing will be maintained as practicable, and all students will receive a free lunch if they choose.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, parents expressed concerns about children wearing masks.

Christine Mertz said children wearing masks should be a “parent decision not a governor decision.”

“My daughter came home every day last year with a headache, and they were only half days. I could only imagine what this year is going to be like,” Mertz said.

Board Solicitor William Donio responded.

“As of now it is the position of this board of education that masks are not mandated. They are encouraged, but they are not mandated and that is a parental decision. So that’s this board saying that. However, as the Superintendent stated, late this afternoon there was a press release that the governor would be speaking about a mask mandate for next year. Now it will all depend on the wording of what that mandate is and how it is presented. If it is an executive order, under his powers, under the state of emergency, and he requires it, then this board has no discretion … When it’s an executive order, a public entity is required to comply with the elements of that executive order,” Donio said.

“Is the school going to adhere to medical exemptions at all even with the mandate?” Mertz asked.

“School always will recognize appropriate requests for accommodations on the Americans with Disabilities Act under section 504 the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 under the IDEA and those provisions were actually in E.O. 175 last year. However, just to finish, it is the position of this board and I think it’s somehow being lost in translation that unless they’re mandated to do it, they’re not mandating any child to do it. They’re going to let that be a parent decision. So quite frankly I think that the public should be very appreciative that this board unlike a lot of other school districts is not trying to assert that authority unless they’re absolutely required to do so,” Donio said.

“You’re doing that this year, but last year at the end of the year when he said it was up to school districts you didn’t allow our children to come in no masks,” Mertz said.

“He didn’t say that,” Donio said.

“He did. He left it up to the school district,” Mertz said.

“No. He said it’s up to the school districts based on the weather conditions existing at the time. However, if your districts are air conditioned, if your buildings are air conditioned, that was not an exemption. He did not say that,” Donio said.

“So you’re basing it upon how you read it,” Mertz said.

“No, not how I read it. I’m based upon what the law is. This board of education is obligated to follow the law,” Donio said.

Heather Lombardo spoke next during public comment.

“Governor Murphy did just come out and say that students in grades K-12 must wear masks at start of school year. So are we following that?” Lombardo asked.

“What did you say he said?” Mento said.

“He said that come September 1 that when kids start school he’s going to mandate a mask again,” Lombardo said.

“We will have to look exactly how he’s issuing that directive,” Donio said.

“But we know there’s science now that it’s detrimental to these children. I can’t, like I’m trying, I’m going to be calm, but we really like need to open our eyes that it’s basically child abuse in the sense of muzzling these kids. Not giving them enough oxygen,” Lombardo said.

Lombardo said she spoke with pediatric nurses and doctors who reported the following “adverse incidents” for children wearing masks: headaches and migraines, dizziness, lethargy, bloody nose, skin lesions, rashes and acne on the face, skin breakdown behind the ears, increased cavities, mouth sores and abscesses, reduced ability to concentrate, cognitive decline, exacerbation of mental health issues including anxiety, difficulty breathing and difficulty learning.

“Now I think all of that, all of that said, outweighs wearing a mask. I mean like this is their lives. I’m not jeopardizing it over a piece of cloth that’s not even protecting them from something,” she said.

Lombardo asked the board “who’s going to accept liability for the countless doctor visits and lost learning time to students that have occurred due to the masks?”

“I’ll let you finish. You’re kind of over your four minutes unless, is that are you finished?” Donio said.

“I have a lot more, but I don’t want to take up everyone’s time. I think we can cut the crap to be honest and realize this isn’t healthy for these kids like we know that. They’ve proven that. All the political stuff aside, my main concern is the health and well-being of my children, and I’ve seen what it has done over this past year and I cannot continue that another school year. I don’t want to take them out of this district. I think the staff, the teachers, the faculty are amazing. I really really really appreciate them and everything they do for my children, but I cannot do the masks. I will not consent to that on any level, so I’m wondering if it’s going to be put back up as a mandate who’s going to be held liable?” Lombardo said.

Donio said he wants an opportunity to read what the governor is saying.

“My suggestion is you know there’s an election in November. Your governor’s up for reelection. I’m not pitching one way or another because I don’t want to make this political, but if people are upset with the directives that he’s given. It is not in the authority of this subordinate entity. A board of education falls under the jurisdiction of the commissioner of education who falls under the jurisdiction under the governor to say, ‘we won’t follow the governor’s orders.’ They don’t have that power,” Donio said.

“Yes they do,” Lombardo said.

“No they don’t,” Donio said.

“Yes they do,” Lombardo said.

“OK you know again, we can go back and forth. I appreciate that you think that and I may not disagree with you as far as the underlying things that you’re advocating for. OK I’m a parent. OK yes, I may absolutely 100 percent agree with what you’re saying from a substantive standpoint but from a procedural standpoint, it’s not this board who can tell the governor whether they listen or don’t listen. And if you don’t think that’s the case, there’s two gym owners who are going to be bankrupted because they thought that was the case,” Donio said.

“Thank you. Your time has expired,” Mento said.

“I have technically not really. I don’t know who makes up the time frame for—” Lombardo said.

“The board of education. Four minutes and you’ve doubled that,” Mento said.

“I just want to know what’s what is the plan?” Lombardo said.

Mento suggested to carry on the conversation on a one-on-one basis with Chieco or Tammy Leonard, the assistant superintendent.

“Did it sink in though the reality of the harm it causes to these children the mask wearing?” Lombardo said.

“Ma’am your time is up. Thank you. I appreciate your passion,” Mento said.

“Our tax dollars pay for all of this, the podium I’m standing and where you’re sitting as well. I really don’t want to get nasty, but this is serious. When it comes to my kids, I want to know what’s the school’s intent with the masks—” Lombardo said.

“Shut it off,” Mento said regarding the microphone.

“Because that few months ago it was left up to the—” Lombardo said.

The livestream then went black.

“—school district to decide whether or not we make masks optional, and I find it very disrespectful that you’re not even looking at me. This isn’t a joke to me. It’s not a joke. It’s my kids,” Lombardo said.

“Ma’am I think your out of order right there. The chair has already said that [livestream comes back] you’ve used up your time. You don’t get an unlimited amount of time. That’s also a law. Here’s the thing, again, no one’s disagreeing with you from a substantive standpoint,” Donio said.

“Then why don’t you stand up?” Lombardo said.

“Because here’s the thing: You talk about your tax dollars. I just made reference to and this board of education can have state aid withheld if it refuses to follow orders. It can have actions taken against it. It can become a school district that’s a non-high performing school district by the commissioner of education. So again, you have a voice. The person who’s telling you this is in Trenton. Go there. Go to the press conferences. Put it to the governor. This board doesn’t have that authority. I cannot repeat that enough. I know you think otherwise, but you’re wrong,” Donio said.

“I asked you to write letters to the governor along with the other districts and that was never done on behalf of Hammonton District. I asked the support in many ways and I wasn’t supported at all, so you have a voice as well. We all have a voice in this and we all have the opportunity to do what’s right by these children and that’s to keep the masks optional,” Lombardo said.

“Ma’am I’m sorry but your time is up,” Mento said.

Mento then called for a five-minute recess.

“We will continue with the public comment and we will continue and we will abide by the rules and we will be respectful to one another and we will get through this because again like Mr. Donio has numerous times and so has Ms. Chieco about our plan and we might not necessarily agree with what Trenton jams down our throat, but there are rules and there are regulations that we have to abide by,” Mento said.

Marlene Penza then spoke during public comment.

“Thank you and I appreciate you listening to us, but I hope you hear us. Our children are worth everything to us and I know they’re worth everything to you … What are you going to continue to do? Continue to mask these children? That’s not the way it should be, and you know that’s not the way it should be. We’re a free country. I hope and pray to God that you keep it a free country, and that you respect everyone’s opinion and that we don’t argue with each other, but we do have to see that there’s something definitely wrong with what’s going on and I thank you,” Penza said.

The next school board meeting will be held September 9 at 7 p.m. at the Samuel A. Donio Memorial Library.


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