JACKSON – It was a Board of Education meeting like no other. Parents entered the Jackson Memorial High School, some carrying protest signs, to be greeted by black garbed security personnel and township police officers as they moved toward the fine arts center.
This set the scene for a lengthy meeting where 44 parents, students and district staff spoke loudly about their opposition to Governor Phil Murphy’s executive order 251 which mandates the wearing of masks in schools.
That executive order requires staff, students and visitors to wear masks as a means of protection from COVID-19. The school officials had previously hoped that mask wearing would not be necessary and issued a letter to the governor’s office last spring calling for the end of mask wearing in schools.
While speakers at the meeting said they understood the executive order was legal and required the district to comply, many said that Murphy’s edict should be challenged. Comments frequently criticized the governor’s recent vacation in Italy and Board members were called out more than once for not responding to e-mails sent to them by parents.
The auditorium was nearly filled with attendees who cheered on the speakers and at times, interrupted Superintendent Nicole Pormilli and members of the Board.
The governor’s executive order requires mask wearing in schools even when school is not in session and technically included the evening’s Board of Education meeting but no member of the audience wore a mask.
Jackson’s BOE meeting ran for several hours allowing speakers three minutes to present their views with Board Attorney Marc Zitomer providing a one-minute warning about their last 60 seconds.
Some individuals were reluctant to give their name for this article of The Jackson Times. They said they worked for the district and were afraid to speak to the press or at the public session. Some, inspired by the number of speakers, did come forward to present their remarks. None of the speakers were in favor of mask wearing and most expressed animosity toward the governor’s judgement in handling the pandemic and his use of executive orders.
“I’m a school employee and they already threatened me today,” one resident told The Jackson Times.
Resident Brad Nathan brought his two daughters along for the meeting. He said prior to the meeting that, “My concerns are that backed on medical science that I don’t think it is right to have kids masked up for the school year. It is not fair to them. They just want to be normal. They want to have friends and not made fun of by their peers that they have to wear masks. They don’t want to wear a mask at all. We’re here to stand up for the kids because we are their voice. My one child is just starting kindergarten and my other second grade.”
He added that he had observed the masks causing anxiety, “not focusing right, coming home tired all of a sudden and you can see the actual results of the kids having to wear masks.”
Pormilli remarked prior to the public comment period, “We appreciate everyone’s perspective. We do listen. We are trying to do the best job we can in a very difficult situation. We have an executive order that we are required to follow by law.”
“We recognize there are many students and parents who are not in favor of that executive order. We also hear from the opposite side from those who are in favor of it and do want masks,” she added. She noted the district will be operating on a full five-day schedule. There is no remote learning program in place this year for any school district. The first day of school is September 9.
Melissa Elsner was the first to speak during the public comment period and she, like most speakers, didn’t mince words. “I have a lot of concerns about Executive Order 251 and I have a problem with a Board that says we’re just going to do what Murphy says. This is stomping on our parental rights and our Constitutional rights and the rights of our children. What is happening now is a lot of political theater.”
Elena Boyle said she works in the mental health field who has a private practice in Jackson which specializes in adolescents and addiction. “I’m here today to talk about the executive order and the mental health effects on our kids from COVID have been tremendous. I’ve seen it first-hand. We need to remember that mental health actually matters. Government policies actually meant to curtail the COVID pandemic have resulted in consequences that are so astronomical.”
She added that the executive orders and polices have been “contributing to the surging rate of anxiety, depression and suicide. There are ways to work around these mandates. You can make a policy where when a student’s mental health is harmed by the wearing of these masks. A mental health practitioner such as myself, can exempt a child from this. I have these kids crying in my office and no one is listening to them.”
Parent Victoria Rose asked the board, “would you muzzle your dog seven hours a day – five days of the week? This is cruel. Let’s talk facts and common sense. The masks carry a lot of bacteria and germs. There is zero evidence and data that the masks stop the spread of COVID and there are tons of facts that they do more harm than anything. You guys are just following orders but if he jumps off a bridge are you going to follow him?”
“Doing the right thing is hard. Let’s do something different then what everyone else is doing. Take a stand,” she told the Board.
A number of children who were with their parents stepped up to state that their masks were uncomfortable, there was variations in how mask breaks were allowed per classroom and that it was difficult to understand their teachers who were wearing them. One child remarked “no one asked the kids. The kids didn’t have a say.”
Christine McGinley called for the Board to amend its current quarantine plan to include synchronous learning instruction.
Several parents such as Edward Kaufmann said they would not be sending their children to school wearing masks.
Some parents such as Michelle Russel vowed to vote against Murphy who is up for reelection this fall and against any school board candidate who “doesn’t listen to parents.”
Former PTO president Darlene Demarest said the Board should “stand up to the bully (Murphy). Rosa Parks simply said no.”
Student Alex Gomez who will be a senior next semester criticized how Board member Gus Acevedo was wearing his mask and his proximity to Board member Tzvi Herman who sat next to him. Gomez said wearing a mask inhibited his learning ability last year.
Pormilli took notes during the evening as did some members of the Board. “I’ve heard a lot of emotion,” she said. She reminded the audience who frequently interrupted her as she spoke that disobeying the executive order could result in sanctions against the district including fines and the withholding of state aid. She noted that Middletown is facing such a review due to a recent resolution that their Board eventually backed away from that would have allowed for an easy exemption system from wearing masks.
“There are consequences for not wearing a mask,” the superintendent warned parents. Some parents yelled out that students should all show up without masks to which Pormilli responded would result in their parents having to pick them up from school. The parents yelled back, “What if we don’t come to pick them up? What will you do?”
Pormilli promised that a more universal mask break policy would be established to remove an inconsistency within classrooms.
Board member John Burnetsky remarked, “your anger is righteous but your needs should be directed to Trenton.”
“We don’t have any power here,” Board Vice President Michael Walsh added.