The film “1776” is said to be a classic. It focuses on our early history as a developing nation and it includes a particular scene which is noteworthy in contemporary America. Here’s the scene in a nutshell:
Lewis Morris: [as John Hancock is about to swat a fly] Mr. Secretary, New York abstains, courteously.
[Hancock raises his fly swatter at Morris, then draws back]
John Hancock: Mr. Morris,
[pause, then shouts]
John Hancock: WHAT IN HELL GOES ON IN NEW YORK?
Lewis Morris: I’m sorry Mr. President, but the simple fact is that our legislature has never sent us explicit instructions on anything!
John Hancock: NEVER?
[slams fly swatter onto his desk]
John Hancock: That’s impossible!
Lewis Morris: Mr. President, have you ever been present at a meeting of the New York legislature?
[Hancock shakes his head “No”]
Lewis Morris: They speak very fast and very loud, and nobody listens to anybody else, with the result that nothing ever gets done.
[turns to the Congress as he returns to his seat]
Lewis Morris: I beg the Congress’s pardon.
John Hancock: [grimly] My sympathies, Mr. Morris.
In many ways, that last part by Lewis Morris could describe what has been occurring at some Board of Education meetings lately. I’ve been covering BOE meetings for about four decades now. They were usually quiet and involve the planning of curriculum, facilities, programs and development of budgets and sprinkle in the occasional awards to teachers and students.
Yes, occasionally a Board member would raise their voice about a policy issue or a parent would bring up concerns about an action taken by a teacher or administrator. It wasn’t always quiet but it was usually cordial.
In recent years they’ve become much more complicated, especially with deep budget cuts and oh that darn global pandemic that has impacted us all. Mask wearing in schools has become a battleground issue in several school districts in Ocean County and beyond. Parents understandably have strong feelings about the policy currently mandated through executive orders now extended by Governor Phil Murphy.
School districts are following the mandate because as administrators and Board members have said, they must do so or face repercussions from the state most likely in the form of a further reduction in state aid. Parents want school districts to be more vocal against the mandates and to join forces with lawmakers who are opposing the governor’s use (or misuse) of power.
This debate has spilled over to halt some live Board meetings with even Board members refusing to wear masks – resulting in a cancelation and rescheduling of meetings to a virtual format in the last month.
Curt words by parents sporting sweatshirts with political slogans directed at Board members and administrators are also becoming more common place. One superintendent was accused of following along the path simply to “pick up a check” in reference to the state’s ESSER funding that provides for funds to cover the cost of COVID-19 pandemic impacts.
It goes without saying that the idea of mandatory vaccinations for students, and policies governing masking are all hot button issues that should be fleshed out. This is hard to do with a once-a-month BOE meeting, given the rapid-fire changes in the pandemic and the state guidelines and polices coming out of the CDC.
Administrators can’t keep up with the pace and parents have many legitimate concerns. Those frustrations are boiling over to create a very different atmosphere at Board meetings and that is impairing the work the Boards do. This is another aspect of the pandemic, and it is a powerful one.
As one newly minted BOE member said recently, we need to start listening more to each other and arguing less. That is a paraphrased statement but it is pretty much on the mark of what the member said and it is sound advice. BOE meetings are becoming theatrical showcases of the frustration and fear parents have and while they do need to express themselves, there seems to be little change occurring as the power to make that change is in Trenton.
Causing the cancellation of meetings and making BOE meetings battlegrounds where residents literally sit on two sides of the room divided up by those wearing and not wearing masks is probably not the best route to take as it just postpones the work needed to be done.
There needs to be some middle ground with this. A hybrid meeting made up of those who wear masks to be at a live session while others who do not want to wear them watch and participate from home, might be the answer. Perhaps giving the authority to the school districts to decide might be another.
For now, we await for March 7th when the in-school mask mandate will be lifted, where we can go back to some normalcy and where the business at hand is planning the school’s budget, developing curriculum, figuring out where to find more bus drivers and settling the latest teacher contracts all while coping with reductions in state aid.
I don’t envy parents, teachers, administrators or board members. Most of all, I feel bad for the students who are being caught in the crossfire of all of this.
Assistant News Editor