March 3, 2021

Many Voices Speak Up, as Schools Make Plans For Return to Normal

By Donald Gilpin

On February 23, as they prepared to begin the 7:30 p.m. public session of their regular Tuesday evening meeting, the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education (BOE) was looking forward to a report from district administrators on a plan for moving forward in addressing pandemic-related issues and bringing more children safely back into the buildings.

Logged in on the Zoom session, however, were more than 800 participants — mostly high school students, but also a significant number of teachers and parents. They wanted to speak on a variety of different concerns, and most were not happy.

By 9:30 p.m. the BOE had taken care of preliminary business and heard the administrators’ reports, and the public forum portion of the meeting began, with individuals each allowed two minutes to speak. The Board decided to extend the public comment period from its usual 15 minutes to one hour, then another hour. Community members spoke up, voicing frustrations, stress, sometimes anger, often directed at administration or Board members, sometimes directed against the pandemic in general and its accompanying restrictions, unforeseen disruptions, and constantly changing variables necessitating frequent changes of plans.

The BOE members listened. Board members do not respond during the public forum session, though they did frequently reiterate their commitment to hearing everybody who wanted to speak. Finally, as midnight and the legally mandated end of the meeting approached, the Board and Superintendent Barry Galasso committed to carrying on the dialogue in future planning sessions with students, teachers, and parents in the following days.

Praising the work of the BOE and superintendent and their commitment to listening and working with the students, Yash Roy, Princeton High School (PHS) senior and one of two student representatives on the BOE, attributed last Tuesday’s contentious meeting to pandemic fatigue and communication lapses, “a confluence of bad factors.” He noted, “It was very high tension, but it cooled down very quickly.”

Janelle Wilkinson, PHS French teacher and mother of two teenagers, one who graduated from PHS last year, emphasized the impact of “Zoom fatigue” on the health of students and teachers. Criticizing the administrators’ plan to add more instructional hours to the high school day, she added, “More work and more hours sitting in front of the screen is exactly the opposite of what these teenagers need during a pandemic.”

She went on to describe some of the strains of Zoom education. “Being on Zoom for PHS students for five, six, seven, or eight hours for school is completely exhausting. Zoom fatigue is real, and we know it. A healthy school-life balance, getting them off the screen, is more important than ever during this pandemic.”

PHS Educational Media Specialist Jennifer Bigioni, modern languages teacher Malachi Wood, and others emphasized the need for teachers, students, and others in the building to have more influence. “PHS students, teachers, support staff, administrators, and other educators in the building are the ones who are living the schedule and who are most affected by it. We are the ones who should be consulted to be part of the decision-making process,” said Wood in an email.

In his comments at the BOE meeting Wood criticized the proposal of an extended schedule, calling it “an equity disaster that will extend the equity gap that already exists at PHS.” He added that “struggling students need extra time for individual support” and that extending class times would exacerbate the problem rather than fix it.

In a March 1 phone interview, Galasso, who has met with various stakeholders, including a group of 17 representative PHS students, in the six days since last Tuesday’s firestorm, commented on the extraordinary upsurge of public sentiment and engagement.

“It’s hard to account for that,” he said. “There’s the fact that we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of COVID and there doesn’t seem to be any significant change from where we were last March. There’s some lessening of restrictions, but we’re still not there.”

Emphasizing his ongoing goal of bringing as many students as possible back to a normal high school experience, Galasso continued, “There’s also the fact that predominantly our staff is not vaccinated, and people are concerned about that. And students are still learning remotely and have a significant amount of work. I think all those factors combined probably caused discontent.”

He noted also the possibility that the BOE and administration planning could have been communicated more clearly, with more voices given the opportunity to weigh in before the February 23 meeting. 

Galasso described the complexities of meeting the needs of students who are taking several AP courses and other students who need credit recovery and the help to earn appropriate grades to graduate from high school. At PHS many students enjoy the in-person experience, he said, but there are many (about 70 percent) who, for a wide range of reasons, are continuing their studies remotely.

“So what we’re doing now, we’re meeting with students and meeting with faculty and with principals, and we’re saying, ‘How do we make this all work?’ So we almost make it an individual kind of program,” depending on whether students need more direct instruction or more time for independent work and collaboration with other students.

Galasso sympathized with people who have expressed their unhappiness with frequent changes in plans and schedules, but, he noted, “Any time we bring in more kids, that requires more schedule changes. All parents want us to bring more kids in. Bringing more kids in for opportunities means schedule changes.”

It is a definite priority to ensure that all arts and music, clubs and activities, and all sports programs are fully operational by mid-April, following spring break, he said. “And we’ll make sure that all students have transportation,” he added. “Youngsters will have the chance to get back to enjoy school, and how we do that with facilities issues and everything else is going to be a cooperative issue among all of us.”

Teachers and school officials are currently reconfiguring classrooms in order to maximize the number of students who can be accommodated safely, and tents will be erected at all the schools for students arriving for in-person learning.

“Conversations are being held with all the stakeholders to come up with a plan that meets the needs of each individual youngster,” Galasso added. “At the meeting I had with the students, they had wonderful ideas that can be incorporated into the plan. The intent is to try to provide a couple of months of everybody experiencing what the Princeton schools can be like.”

In reflecting on progress made in the past week, Roy stated, “The Board and the superintendent have been very open. Even during Tuesday’s meeting, they acted incredibly respectfully and they listened. They listened to every single student and faculty member and parent who wanted to speak, and since then they’ve been doing a lot of work to ensure that everyone feels respected and welcomed.”

He continued, “I know that they truly care about the community. A lot of what we were voicing was just concern, partially about a schedule that exacerbates the stress of already over-stressed students and partially just about the pandemic and everything that’s going on in this senior year.”

In an email he added, “We are having a fruitful discussion that will lead to a schedule and spring plan that works for students, the larger community, and everyone involved. The student body is optimistic about the progress that has already been made. We also appreciate the efforts of the Board and superintendent to listen to students and their concerns, as well as to work to alleviate those issues.”