Parents: open schools
Board hears from parents at Feb. 18 meeting
HAMMONTON—A group of parents told the Hammonton Board of Education that they want the schools to reopen five days a week during the February 18 board of education meeting.
Hammonton Board of Education President Sam Mento III called the meeting to order and all board members were present at the Samuel A. Donio Memorial Library in Hammonton High School except for Thomas Attanasi, Al Pangia and John Thomas. Attanasi and Pangia were excused because they were at work.
Hammonton Superintendent of Schools Robin Chieco gave a statement regarding the high school’s attendance, which Mento said was down 50 percent at the previous board meeting.
Livestreaming classes were introduced to grades six through 12 and was made possible with the purchase of new classroom computers.
“As a result, the number of students that are actively participating daily in their lessons has increased. In addition, students have been able to take advantage of office hours on our remote Wednesdays to receive additional support. The attendance at our elementary schools has remained consistent with pre-COVID attendance rates,” Chieco said.
On February 12, 2021 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released additional guidance for reopening of schools.
According to the CDC, “Universal and correct use of masks, should be required for all students, teachers and staff, and physical distancing of at least six feet between people with cohorting or podding of students to minimize exposure across the school environment.”
“This guidance is consistent with our reopening plan that was implemented to open schools in September while other districts remain closed since March,” Chieco said.
With six feet of social distancing, classrooms can hold 12 students on average, she said.
According to Chieco, the reasoning behind the six feet of social distancing is to limit the exposure of individuals related to close contacts, someone who is within six feet of someone infected with COVID-19 for 15 or more minutes during a 24-hour period.
Since February 1, Chieco said the following COVID-19 cases were reported at the district: six students and seven staff at the high school, five students and one staff at the middle school, three students and one staff at Warren E. Sooy Jr. Elementary School (WES) and one staff member at Hammonton Early Childhood Education Center (ECEC).
“This could have potentially resulted in closing the high school, middle school, four classrooms at WES and two classrooms at ECEC for 14 days. With the introduction of the COVID vaccine and declining cases within Atlantic County, the district is preparing for the possible lifting of restrictions within the educational setting. A survey is being developed to determine the viability of a phased-in return to in-person instruction by the end of this school year,” Chieco said.
She said she’s optimistic that they will finish the school year with a return to some semblance of normalcy.
The meeting then moved to public comment. Mento asked everyone to stay within a 3-minute time period.
Jessica Capella, a parent who created the “Hammonton Parent School Board-demand reopen” Facebook group on February 3, was the first to speak. She wants the district to have five days of in-person instruction each week, and she said the request should be met by March 1.
“I am aware I need no introduction since Sam Mento so curtly and candidly said that to me on our not-so-tasteful phone call last week or so. I do have one question before I go in, I wanted to know Mrs. Chieco, when will the survey go out and what will the questions be?” Capella asked.
Chieco said she’s hopeful to have the survey out by the end of this week or early the following week. The survey will be translated into Spanish and there will be an option to call in.
Capella agreed with Chieco that they need to survey the district, but Capella said the last survey didn’t give a picture of what the community wanted because they couldn’t select five days of in-person instruction.
“And you do understand the reason why that was omitted was because—” Mento said.
“Sam, with all the respect, I’ll take questions after,” Capella said.
“You’re on our time making a public comment,” Mento said.
“Actually I think you’re on our time because we’re the stakeholders. We’re the parents,” Capella said.
“We’re also stakeholders,” Mento said.
“I get that, Sam,” Capella said.
“OK, I’ll tell you what, you have your three minutes,” Mento said.
“Thank you. Thanks a bunch,” Capella said.
“It doesn’t work that way. You get three minutes for comments,” Board Solicitor William Donio said.
“Let’s regroup. The initial process would be a survey. I think that would be a great start to survey the district and offer two options: full five days or fully remote,” Capella said.
Capella along with other parents challenge the district’s interpretation of the CDC guidelines.
“I highlighted the word six feet ‘when feasible,’ six feet ‘if possible’ and then also in the most recent it says ‘to the greatest extent possible.’ That was in the most recent CDC release. The new CDC operational strategy also uses similar language to the greatest extent possible. Unfortunately, our district administration has interpreted this language incorrectly at the demise of our children’s education,” Capella said.
She argued that this language does not mandate schools operate at partial occupancy or partial days. She said it only suggests reducing classroom sizes.
Capella’s next request is to reinstate the Hammonton Drug Alliance. She said this group is needed more now than ever before.
“The actions of the district to restrict the group from accessing the school in-person are egregious and in a very big contradiction to the [New Jersey Department of Education] NJ DOE’s Road Back plan page 40 where NJ DOE makes recommendations to partner with local organizations to ensure the mental health and safety of the students and staff,” she said.
“OK thank you Mrs. Capella,” Mento said.
“I’m sorry. I’m not done yet,” Capella said.
“There is a time limit and we’ve actually given you several minutes,” Mento said.
“I’m actually going to take her three minutes,” Capella said, referring to another parent.
“Ma’am it doesn’t work that way,” Donio said.
“It doesn’t work like that,” Mento said.
“Just because you don’t like what she’s saying, doesn’t mean you can stop her. She has things to say. We all have. We all talked about this together. She has more things that she has to say and it’s very unfair that you’re trying to hush her,” Amanda Ingemi said.
“The other request that we want to make is regarding attendance and how the attendance is taken,” Capella said before the mic was cut off.
When the mic was cut off, Mento said, “stop filming” but the livestream continued.
Caitlyn Collins was next to speak during public comment. Collins read what was left of Capella’s speech.
“In accordance to the NJ DOE Road Back to directives page 53 under attendance which states, ‘consideration to schedules must offer flexible solutions and attendance monitoring based on parents work schedules. Some students may be engaging in learning in the evening.’ Since Hammonton has never recognized the needs of working parents throughout the pandemic and to date does not provide opportunities for virtual learning in the evening, we demand complete overhaul of attendance portal and protocol which is due at 9 a.m. when most parents are entering work,” Collins said.
Moving forward, Collins said remote/virtual attendance should be submitted and counted within a 24-hour window as well as assessments due that day.
Luke Coia was next to speak during public comment.
“I’m not here to fight or demand or argue or anything like that. What I’m here to do is ask the board if you know is there any talks of any other ways to get these kids back into school more than they are now?” Coia said.
He said Hammonton has the best teachers, but there are a few teachers who aren’t giving the education the kids deserve.
“Maybe we can bring in half the students for half a day; the other half for another half a day. Instead of the students changing classes, maybe the students can stay in one classroom and the teachers can change classes,” Coia said.
Next to speak during public comment was Ingemi.
“First and foremost, I just wanted to say that I found it to be very disrespectful of you guys to turn Jessie’s mic off, so I just wanted to make that clear that for the greater large amount of us here. We all had talked about a lot of this first, so she was speaking on behalf of the majority of us. So with that being said, I’d like to speak a little bit about my experience,” Ingemi said.
Ingemi is a single parent who works outside of home. She has two girls, one in fourth grade and one is second.
“I’m trying hard not to be emotional but it has been very difficult getting them to understand and then also try to provide and keep my mortgage paid. I rely heavily on my community even though we’re not supposed to. I have no choice because I cannot leave my 9-year-old and my 8-year-old home every day by themselves. My parents live in Florida. I do not have family. I rely heavily on all my friends and a lot of the people that live in this town to help teach my children and then when I come home at seven o’clock, I have no idea what they’ve done,” Ingemi said.
Ingemi said she’s drowning.
“My oldest has ADHD and she cannot learn through a computer. She’s drowning as well. So we are struggling,” Ingemi said.
According to her, parents have not heard anything about administration’s plans to reopen, and the current education system is not working.
“It may work for some people who get the opportunity to work from home, but there are people like me who have essential jobs that have to work outside the house,” she said.
Ingemi mentioned other districts who are beginning to reopen using plexiglass around desks to bring students back into the classroom. She asked the board why plexiglass hasn’t been used.
Chieco said that plexiglass doesn’t replace the six feet guidance, and it would cost the district $80,000.
“I am very exhausted from watching my children fail, and they are failing in more ways than one it is not just the grades that honestly I don’t even care about right now. They are without so much and my oldest with her attention deficit disorder would be reaping benefits in school if she had that and she doesn’t so she’s falling through the cracks,” Ingemi said.
Tracy Angelozzi, Hammonton High School teacher and parent with two kids in the district, spoke next.
“There has been a lot of discourse on social media platforms about the educational program in the Hammonton School District. Unfortunately, teacher bashing has become a common occurrence. Statements insinuating that teachers are not doing their job and not deserving of their salaries really strike a nerve with me,” Angelozzi said.
She said she wanted to clarify that the teacher’s union is not an obstacle to reopening the schools.
“Making the educators and their union the villains is misleading and only contributes to low morale. We are all in a tough situation. I can attest with the support of school administration that the teachers have been working hard every day and have been doing everything in their power to make this school year special for students,” Angelozzi said.
Heather Lombardo was the last person to speak during public comment. She also wants the school to be open five days.
“We could do fundraisers if we needed to get the shields, the protective, whatever extended measures that you want to meet we could do that like we’re willing to work together to get these kids back in school because not only do they need that for their education but for their social well-being,” she said.
Lombardo has a daughter who struggles with reading. While other parents have the means to pay for additional education, a large portion of children without the means will be behind and “that’s not OK,” she said.
During the meeting, two presentations were scheduled, but due to snow the teacher of the year recognition will be presented next month.
The other presentation was the 2019-2020 Audit by auditing firm Nightlinger, Colavita and Volpe. The audit synopsis and corrective action plan are available for the public as required by NJSA 18A: 23-4. Mento said there were no findings in the audit.
In front of the board members were two reports, the comprehensive annual financial report for the year ended June 30, 2020 and the auditor’s management report on administrative findings. Board Member Barbara Prettyman read the findings for both reports.
“On page 74 [of the comprehensive annual financial report], you’ll see that we’re still at $9.6 million dollars, but a significant portion of that has been used in the 2021 budget, and of particular interest, something that I ask that you guys keep in mind at all times, is that there are two state aid payments that we receive after the end of our fiscal year that the state of New Jersey has withheld from us for years and years, and that number has now grown to $1.9 million dollars. So our fiscal year ends and the state makes those payments after the end of our fiscal year … You never know what’s going to happen with that $1.9 million dollars, so we’re very very conservative here and try to live within our means, and keep in mind that money could be gone at any time. Again, that’s just my opinion.” Prettyman said.
“In the auditor’s management report, there are various areas that the auditors look closely at. They do all kinds of sampling. They look at all the claims. They look at payroll. They look at all the federal funds. And we’re very pleased to report that again this year there are no audit findings.” Prettyman said.
Board Vice President Michael Pullia gave the finance committee report.
“We’re accepting a donation from Mr. Robert Capoferri of some equipment for over at the grounds building and you know Bobby’s an excellent friend of the school district. He was probably out here today. He’s here every snowstorm. He won’t accept any money and he’s a tremendous asset to this board and I’d like to personally thank him as I’m sure the whole board would for his efforts,” Pullia said.
Board member Raymond Scipione gave the community relations report. First, he congratulated the winter athletes and coaches for persevering though the many obstacles this season.
Scipione also said the virtual national honor society induction ceremony will be shown on the district’s website on February 25 at 7 p.m.
For the buildings and grounds report, Mento started off by thanking the maintenance staff for clearing the snow and ice around the building, parking lots and walkways for the past two weeks.
Mento also talked about negotiations. He said the district is not in a good situation financially.
“We’re hoping that we see some type of increase although last year we were promised additional funding. At the last minute we were cut $1.7 million and we had to make due, pretty much eliminate some of the athletic fields and other things we had wanted to do here around the school just to plug in to keep the lights on and the heat running,” Mento said.
He said people can help the situation is by reaching out to the Department of Education and writing to state legislators.
“Let them know that Hammonton School District needs some help. We need to be funded properly. By their own admission we are some $10, $11 million dollars underfunded,” Mento said.
The next school board meeting will be held Thursday, March 11 at 7 p.m. in the Samuel A. Donio Memorial Library at Hammonton High School.