U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) hosted a roundtable at Kearny High School that included U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9), and New Jersey Education Association President Sean Spiller to discuss the education impact of COVID-19.
By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View
The roundtable provided insights on what students, parents and teachers are facing with the return to in-classroom instruction, as well as how school districts like Kearny are utilizing American Rescue Plan funds to battle through the pandemic.
In New Jersey, Menendez secured over $2 billion from the American Rescue Plan to help local districts safely reopen schools while still addressing the academic, social, emotional and mental health needs of their students.
“We all know how incredibly challenging the past two years have been for families and schools and over the country. Students were forced out of the classrooms and away from their friends and extra curricular plans. Teachers had to adapt their lesson plans to an unprecedented environment,” the senator said this morning.
“We know many children have fallen behind. Just like every aspect of the pandemic, socially and economically disadvantaged communities were hit particularly hard.”
More than 50 percent of students who are Latino or African American are performing below grade level, he noted.
Menendez continued that it been reported that minorities lost access to technology and the pandemic has led to an increase in high school dropouts. Those who are English as a Second Language (ESL) students and those in special education were especially affected.
Menendez noted the money has been used to hire social workers, therapists, and technology to help students access classes.
“We have a long and challenging road ahead of us to address learning loss and get students back to where they needed to be,” he said.
Menendez noted he introduced the Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act, which seeks to address disparities in mental health treatment among socially and economically disadvantaged communities.
“I saw people during these two years in the Congress of the United States have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” chimed in Pascrell.
“For nearly two years the pandemic has upended the lives of our teachers and our children and us. We do not yet know how much they have suffered.”
Pascrell also noted that New Jersey received $10 million for education and a significant amount will go to mental health.
“The funding has provided us the means to expand our after school and summer school programs at all grade levels so that we can accelerate student learning,” added Kearny Assistant Superintendent Flora Encarnacao.
“We are also implementing after school family engagement programs… where students and parents can interact with one another in varied activities. We are now able to fully fund our early college program in conjunction with Hudson County Community College.”
They also set up a program to help the mental and social health of freshman high school students and trained teachers on coping with remote learning.
Encarnacao also noted they are also able to provide more childcare for parents and hire a full-time psychiatrist and implement telehealth appointments for students and their mental health.
“We are grateful for this funding which has helped sustain us during this pandemic and has provided us with the certainty that our students and ed institutions can heal and prosper,” she stated
Additionally, Spiller, also the mayor of Montclair, noted the NJEA advocated for health precaution implements and for assistance coping with mental health issues among students.
“I’m glad that we are having discussions about how to use the resources we have available – thanks to leaders like Senator Menendez – to ensure that our most vulnerable students, in some of our traditionally underserved communities, along with all the students we educate, will have better facilities, better supports and better opportunities than ever before,” Spiller said after the event.
Kearney PTA President Christine Morales noted students have missed crucial time to learn social skills.
“They do more than educate. They teach them how to socialize,” she said of teachers.
Menendez, in response to Gov. Phil Murphy (D) announcing that he’d lift the school mask mandate next month, said he felt he did so based on science and to adapt to the next stage in the pandemic.
“Hopefully that new stage is less virulent, less consequential, and therefore leads to the opening he has created,” he said.
Menendez added that certain school districts may still find it wise to enforce a local mask mandate if there is an outbreak, an option that Murphy indicated he would allow them to have.