From afar, the scene at Marshall Elementary School might have been mistaken for a PTA event or back-to-school gathering, with students and adults spread out across the front lawn on blankets. Yet Friday morning’s sit-in, which involved masked children reading books or typing on laptops, marked the one-year anniversary since classes were last held fully in-person before the school district joined others throughout the state in closing to help slow COVID-19 infections amid a global pandemic.
“This is as close to school as our kids can get,” said April Mason, one of the event’s organizers, which drew more than 50 participants by 9 a.m., most with mobile hotspots and their school-issued Chromebooks.
Mason, who has a fifth-grader at Clinton Elementary School and an eighth-grader at South Orange Middle School, said that virtual learning offers “a fraction of what they normally get out of school.”
Mason decried the lack of “experiential learning,” as well as the lack of normal human interaction. “The teachers have never met my kids, so they don’t know how to motivate them,” she added.
Students in kindergarten through second grade were able to return to classrooms Monday for two half-days per week after the local teachers union agreed to resume in-person instruction following a disagreement with the school district over the effectiveness of COVID-19 safety precautions. The dispute has drawn elected officials into the fray — including Gov. Phil Murphy, who phoned local municipal, teachers union and school district officials last week to press for an agreement.
“We need the teachers union to tell us exactly what exactly they need to get back into the classroom,” said Kate Walker, the parent of a first-grader who said the back-and-forth between the two sides was frustrating due to “moving goalposts” around reopening.
Walker added that she was pleased to hear from elected officials pushing for a resolution after a year of shuttered classrooms.
“It’s unacceptable at this point,” she said.
Pete Pachal, the parent of a second-grader and a fifth-grader at Tuscan Elementary School, said that so much more is known about the coronavirus than at this point last year, noting that post offices, Home Depot and local restaurants are able to operate safely.
“It’s so clear to me that virtual learning is a poor substitute for in-person instruction,” he added, calling virtual physical education classes “a joke” and calling out students’ divided attention from learning via Chromebooks.
“It’s so easy to fire up another browser tab and watch YouTube,” he added.
Elena Radine, the parent of a first-grader at the South Mountain Annex, echoed similar sentiments.
“The science says it is safe to open schools, and we have seen that it is working all over the world and all around us in Essex County,” she said in emailed remarks. “To think of the toll this year has had on our kids is heartbreaking — their suffering is needless and just plain wrong. As adults we need to make this work for them, just like in the other districts around us — why do our children have to suffer?”