As schools across Passaic County closed to slow the spread of COVID-19, school district administrators in the city of Passaic initially planned to cobble together enough days to create an extended break through March 30. Following a mild winter, the district planned to use emergency closing days and move an April spring break into March and stay closed until March 27. March 30 would be a professional development day.
“On that schedule our students wouldn’t have had any instruction for 17 days,” says Frank Koterba, president of the Education Association of Passaic (EAP). “So we gathered together all of our stakeholders, and the response of the board and the mayor was fabulous. They worked to get the schedule fixed.”
Koterba ran all ideas by the EAP Executive Board.
“Communication is key in all situations, but especially in situations like this,” Koterba says. “Through this, I hope the union and central administration can build a lasting system of real communication.”
The board revised the school calendar at an emergency meeting on March 18, which became a day for staff to plan for remote teaching and learning. Home-based instruction began on March 19. March 16 and 17 were listed on the calendar as “Social Distancing Days” and treated as inclement weather days would have been.
“This isn’t easy for my members,” Koterba says. “They are all worried about their students. They are upset that they didn’t even have the chance to say goodbye.”
For Passaic, home-based instruction is a mix of online learning and instructional packets. In addition to pick-up stations at the schools for food distribution to students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, instructional stations staffed by administrators distribute packets for students without internet access and Chromebooks for those with access. Board members are frequenting the sites to provide moral support to district workers.
With nearly 1,600 members, EAP represents teachers, school counselors, child study team members, and other certificated staff, paraprofessionals, security guards, parent liaisons, and attendance officers. All have a role to play in supporting student and families while school buildings are closed.
“The reason why everybody’s doing this is because children are our most valuable asset,” Koterba says. “It shows the level of compassion that all of these individuals are demonstrating during the first pandemic we’ve had in over 100 years.”
In addition to regular communication among students, parents, teachers and paraprofessionals, the district’s 20 parent liaisons are calling families on a rotating basis. When teachers and paraprofessionals have been unable to get in touch with parents, staff members are delivering work to students’ homes while being mindful to practice social distancing and safety measures. District security guards are monitoring the schools.
“Our district has almost 200 kids with ASD [autism spectrum disorder], and the one-to-one paraprofessionals who some of them work with are reaching out to them,” Koterba says. “We’ve had paras reaching into their own pockets to buy gift cards for the parents to use to buy items that will motivate children to work through all that’s going on.”
Koterba himself is a special education teacher on full-time release to serve as EAP president. He is making daily school visits to check on his members whose jobs require them to report to the schools.
“I make sure that everyone is practicing social distancing and that they have exactly what they need,” Koterba says. “If I’m a leader, I’ll be on the front lines with you. I am the type of leader who believes you have to visible and accessible at all times. Additionally, our members face the challenges of supporting their own families with remote learning for their kids, getting children home from college, taking care of their own parents, and so much else.”
William Valentin, the president of the Passaic Maintenance, Custodial, Janitresses, Cafeteria Workers Association (PMCJCWA) is proud of the role his members are playing in keeping the children of Passaic safe, healthy and well-fed.
“I am proud of this district, I am proud of my members, and we are all proud to be able to serve our children,” Valentin says. “I have worked here 27 years, and I know the children and their parents. Under these extreme circumstances and very challenging times, I congratulate the members of the PMCJCWA, and all the other staff members who are considered essential staff acting on behalf of the Passaic Board of Education. I thank all of our staff members and the school board for your extreme efforts and loyalty to the school system.”
Valentin said that each day brings several meetings as the situation changes from day to day.
“We are in the unknown territory of what this crisis has brought upon us,” Valentin says.
Valentin and PMCJCWA are also mindful of their members’ rights. Valentin wants to be sure that the work is distributed with equity and fairness.
Trent Johnson, the 1st vice president of PMCJCWA, says that it takes about an extra 45 minutes per classroom to sanitize all the surfaces where droplets containing the novel coronavirus could have landed. He also speaks with a note of pride in his voice at the work that he and his fellow 220 association members are doing to protect their community at schools in the city of Passaic.
“We’re wiping down everything in the room,” Johnson says. “We’re using bleach wipes and an E-64 solution on desks, doorknobs, handrails, the teacher’s desk, computers, light fixtures, heating units, window sills, tabletops and table legs—everything.
While sanitizing the rooms, staff wear gloves, and N-95 masks. Johnson works at Theodore Roosevelt School No. 10 and the Anne Frank School No. 10 Annex. The schools serve children in kindergarten through eighth grades.
The association’s food service professionals are preparing thousands of to-go breakfasts and lunches that are distributed from 7:30 a.m. to noon for families in the free and reduced-price meals program. Individual family members check-in at the front of the building and come away with meals for all of the children in their households.
In the city of Passaic, 89%, or over 12,400 students, participate in the free or reduced-price meal program. Custodial and maintenance staff assist the cafeteria staff in the massive undertaking of distributing meals for children who need them.
On Saturday, March 21 educational support professionals (ESPs) in Passaic distributed Chromebooks and carts from the school for remote learning.
“Our members and the teachers we work with are doing great work in a difficult time,” Johnson said. “We are doing what needs to be done to help keep everyone safe, fed and educated.”
Johnson is seeing how remote learning is working from several perspectives. His wife, Tanisha Barkley-Johnson, a New Jersey City University graduate, is a paraprofessional in the same school where he works. She collaborates with teacher Mina Raval, helping their kindergarten students continue their education from home. They are online to teach and to assist the parents from 9 a.m. to 3 pm. Their two daughters attend Passaic High School and Garfield Middle School in Bergen County.
“My wife has a lot of work,” Johnson said. “She has to be online for her students and be there for our kids. My daughters are loving it—they get to be on the computer a lot for more school now.”