Fighting for classroom instruction 

Fighting for classroom instruction 

Rabbis sign letter opposing non-pandemic remote schooling

Emily Goldberg
Emily Goldberg

A dozen Essex County rabbis — along with a cantor and 11 non-Jewish clergy — have sent a letter to state legislators, urging that the Assembly reconsider rather than approve a pending bill that permits school districts to hold online classes even in non-pandemic situations. The state Senate already has passed a version of the measure.

“Before you finalize your position on the legislation, please consider the impacts, examine the evidence of learning loss and, most importantly, hear testimony from parents, especially from those whose children have special needs, who uniquely understand how remote learning affects the children of our State,” the letter urges.

The letter was written and circulated by Rabbi Marc Katz of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, after a congregant, Emily Goldberg, approached him for help on this issue.

Before the pandemic, Ms. Goldberg had worked as an attorney. But one of her two children has ADHD and “learning remotely was very challenging to him,” she said. “He required one-on-one attention during the course of the school day. It was a fulltime job to keep him engaged with remote school.”

Ms. Goldberg lives in Montclair, which was one of the last districts to return to in-person classes, in the spring of 2021.

“Nobody in leadership roles in the district really seemed to be doing anything about the challenges that kids with disabilities were uniquely experiencing with remote learning,” she said. “The more parents I talked to, the more disconnect I saw between what was being experienced and what was being spoken about.”

She decided to use her advocacy skills “for my own child and other kids” with disabilities who weren’t being well served by remote learning.

In the spring of 2021, that led to a formal request to return the kids to the classroom.

“Ultimately, the district did the right thing,” she said. “That was my introduction to advocacy.”

She then got increasingly involved in the question of how children with disabilities managed during and after the pandemic.

“How do you recover the learning for children who lost a lot during remote schooling, whether because of neural atypicality or internet access issues or parents who were not at home to help?” she said. “I started to see this as a major civil rights issue. The gap in educational equity had widened.”

She worked with the Newark-based Education Law Center on the question of compensatory education, the federal requirement that school districts make up for the special services they couldn’t provide during the pandemic. “If they missed 20 hours of required speech therapy last year, they’re supposed to get an additional 20 hours this year,” Ms. Goldberg said. “I worked with the center to launch an online training for parents in how to get this.”

In March, she talked with someone from the center about the push for compensatory programs in Montclair. “She mentioned this legislation,” Ms. Goldberg said. “I said I had not heard of it. She said it was really bad.”

Ms. Goldberg read the text of the bills, both titled “Revises conditions for use of virtual or remote instruction to meet minimum 180-day school year requirement” but with slight variations between the two chambers’ versions.

“It was shocking that the legislature would expand the opportunities for remote learning, less than a year after my son’s school reopened and all this data had emerged about how harmful remote learning was for our most vulnerable kids,” she said.

“There were two realities: One where children were suffering, and one where our leaders didn’t understand it and thought making school remote was a solution for other things. This felt like a betrayal from people who should be representing us.

“We understand that covid required a pivot to remote learning. I understand that there may be a need to close and go remotely, but it really needs to be a de minimus number of days.”

While the version of the bill being considered in the Assembly allows for remote learning in specific circumstances such as “inclement weather or hazardous transportation conditions,” the one the Senate passed further allows schools to be closed for “any other circumstance.”

The NJ Consortium for Immigrant Children and New Jersey Special Education Practitioners have also come out against the bill.

“As a rabbi, I don’t always get involved in every social justice issue that comes across my desk,” Rabbi Katz said. “You just can’t. Part of why this is important is that it affects my congregants. My congregations has a lot of families with kids with special needs. It’s my job to listen and be an ally and advocate for their cause.”

Other Jewish clergy who signed the letter were Rabbi Laurence Groffman and Cantor Kenneth Feibush of Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove; Rabbi Max Edwards, Rabbi Clifford Kulwin, and Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston; Rabbi Alexandra Klein of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, Rabbis Elliott Tepperman and Ariann Weitzman of Bnai Keshet in Montclair; Rabbi E. Noach Shapiro of Montclair; Rabbi Steven A. Fox Montclair; and Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills.

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