Cresskill is a pretty little town; snug in Bergen County’s Northern Valley, its tight-knit, ethnically diverse, mainly well-to-do community, about 8,500 people strong, is used to working together, and its school district has been one of its sources of pride.
Like most of the country’s public schools, Cresskill’s middle and high schools, housed in one building, have been overwhelmingly remote since the pandemic began in March 2020. Like all the school districts around it, Cresskill had to figure out how to keep its children and teenagers educated, engaged, and emotionally healthy on very short notice.
But as the districts around it have been able to go back to in-person instruction at the start of the 2021-22 school year, establishing a masked, socially distanced new normal — at least in theory, but that’s an entirely other story — Cresskill’s preteens and teenagers still must spend most schooldays at home.
On September 1, Hurricane Ida demolished the town’s middle and high school, doing at least $19 million dollars of damage. The school was built on a flood plain — no doubt an unwise decision, but one made more than 60 years ago — and the hurricane invaded it, destroying boilers and other infrastructure, as well as everything in the auditorium, the gym, the media center, and the rooms themselves.
The goal is to get FEMA funds to help repair the damage, but as the parents began realizing, that’s not easy.
The realization that the schools really wouldn’t open hit them slowly, Elinor Solomon, an Argentinian-born Israeli parent with two children in (or not in) middle and high school and another in elementary school, said. “The school flooded, and there was some testing done, and a lot of follow-up, and then the superintendent said that it couldn’t open. From one board of ed meeting to the other, from one superintendent’s meeting to the other, we started to realize that there was a real problem. But this is a very Jewish population, and everyone was busy with the holidays, and then everyone started realizing that there is no school, and the superintendence was saying that it will take some more time, and then some more time, and there were more and more problems.
“First Lady Tammy Murphy was here at the beginning, and she said that the schools will open sooner rather than later.
“And then nothing. Nada. Klum. Nothing but red tape. We will get FEMA money for the boilers, but not until the orders are placed, and we can’t place the order until we have the money.” FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — will reimburse up to 75 percent of the cost, but not until the school district comes up with enough money to place the order in the first place. The boilers alone are estimated to cost between $2 and $4 million.”
Faced with that realization, the parents began organizing. “We started to see that we are up against a monster, which is the bureaucracy,” Ms. Solomon said. “Governor Murphy hasn’t met with representatives from our school district yet. We started a campaign — we had Israelis, Koreans, Latinos, and others — we met in a basement and started taking action, calling legislators.
“We are here to help the officials bring our kids back to school.”
So far, she said, “there already has been an official announcement that the building will not be open this year” — this school year, that is — “and we don’t know about next year.” Not only does it take a long time to restore a building from the kind of damage the school sustained but the wisdom of reconstructing it on a flood plain is an open question as well.
There is one bright spot, Ms. Solomon said. “The moment the school was closed, the entire faculty for special needs students had a place to go. The town took care of that. It is a priority. That happened immediately.
“It is not a big town, so they are in a smallish recreation center that the town gave to special ed. And it also gave the library to the guidance office, for college counseling and other things.”
The town also found space for sports and theater programs, which require less indoor room.
The short-term solution for middle- and high-school academics is placing students in another building. There is a parochial school in town, Sainte Therese of Lisieux, which the Catholic church no longer uses and has leased to the public school system. But the children can go there only once every four days, and then for a shortened day, because there is no internet there. Teachers teach more than one grade, so they need access to Zoom, to reach the students whose classes are scheduled online. The convoluted logistics demand the short day, and both teachers and students lose.
“The kids are doing horribly,” Ms. Solomon said. “They are not learning. They are not engaged.
“I don’t even want to think about what the faculty is going through, and the director of the school, poor man, who is trying to cope with all of this anger and frustration.
“The kids are not doing well,” she repeated. “My boys are done. They are just done. They can’t sit there anymore.
“My tenth-grader said to me ‘If I go to a regular school, I will be drowning academically.’ He is an average student, and he has lost three months of school this year. Parents have been hiring tutors; they’re trying anything they can to avoid their kids suffering from depression.”
Some parents have been paying tuition to local private schools or nearby public-school districts, but that can become prohibitively expensive, she added. “And it’s also affecting the younger siblings, who have frustrated older siblings at home, and their parents, who worry about where their sixth-graders will be next year.”
Everyone is trying to deal with the situation by being polite and understanding, Ms. Solomon said. “There is a real sense of community in Cresskill. Nobody wants to hurt anybody. If this had happened in Israel, they would have burned up the governor’s desk by now, but people are respectful. They want to give space to the legislators.
“But no one in the state government is taking it seriously.”
A few Fridays ago, a group of Cresskill parents went to Trenton to rally in front of the governor’s office. “There were about 150 of us, parents and students,” Ms. Solomon said. “We made signs and we rallied, and then they” — security guards — “told us that we could not go by the building. They nicely told us to stand in the side areas. It felt like we were talking to the dinosaurs.
“It was good to show the children that you always have to stand up for your values, and for your rights. And by the way, the school district marked the kids as absent if they weren’t on Zoom that day.”
Still, she said, “the parents are working very hard to be considerate with the board and the school district. There is a lot of respect on both sides.
“There are incredible people in our community.”
Tal Erlander Mashiah, her husband, and their three kids moved to Cresskill 2 1/2 years ago. Her husband works for an Israeli high-tech company, and his work has taken the family around the world since they left Israel 16 years ago. Their oldest child was born in India, and the other two in Singapore. “When we moved here from Singapore, I told my husband that you have to take us either back to Israel or to mini-Israel,” she said. What’s mini-Israel? Cresskill and the other Northern Valley towns. “It’s a very warm, loving Israeli community here,” Ms. Mashiah said. And it has a reputation. “It’s almost like a kibbutz. If you need something, you write it down on WhatsApp, and someone finds what you need. We all volunteer in the elementary school for lunch, and if somebody can’t show up, you can just get a replacement.”
She is deeply upset by what’s going on in the schools now. “It’s heartbreaking, the level of frustration,” she said. One of her children is in high school and another is in middle school, so they both are affected directly; the third is in fifth grade, and worried about next year. “It’s all so unclear and uncertain,” she said.
“I don’t even have words to describe how hard it is. We have been keeping our hopes high, and every time something happens, I feel hopeless,” because very little that’s happened has been good.
“They have to sit in front of a screen from 8 a.m. until 2:20. They don’t know how to control themselves or interact or manage themselves. There is no guidance. I don’t want to blame the teachers. But you can’t just tell a kid to do this and that with no supervision,” and there is not much supervision that a teacher can provide through a screen, particularly after two years of screen time. “They can’t talk to their friends, or to their teachers.
“I’m a stay-at-home mom, and I try to supervise them, and when they have a break I try to pull them away from their computers. I don’t know what moms who have to work do.
“If I didn’t go into their rooms at 2:20, they would stay there staring at the screen until 6. That has become the norm, sitting in front of a screen. My kids tell me that they do have friends — online friends — and I say you don’t even know their names.
“My sons play with kids in Israel, and that’s nice, but it’s still sitting in front of a screen.”
The new way of life has many repercussions. “I see their grades going down,” Ms. Mashiah said. “It takes a village to keep the kids at a reasonable level. I hire a math tutor — there are so many people involved to keep these kids on track — but they feel awkward in social interactions now, because it’s not something they are used to.
“They’re also at an age when it is hard to for them to talk about what they’re feeling. They don’t want to be with their parents.”
One chilling thing that teenagers certainly do not want to discuss with their parents, but according to Ms. Mashiah she and other parents have noticed and talk about with each other, is how spending all day on screen and online can exacerbate insecurities. “When you sit in front of the computer and you see yourself, you have to look at yourself, all the time; you think, ‘I am ugly.’ And it seems like you don’t know the answers so you think, ‘I am not smart enough.’ And a teenager’s hormones are going wild anyway. When you have a kid who is shy, and who hasn’t practiced being with other kids for months, the anxiety just gets worse.
“One of my kids told me, ‘Nobody cares. I just sit in front of the computer, and they just talk and talk.’ And at least he could verbalize it.
“We are now almost entering the third year of this. We spent this summer in Israel and came back in September with so many high hopes, excited about going to school. For the last year and a half, with covid, nothing was normal. There was never a routine last year, there were so many quarantines.
“My seventh-grader has never been to a proper middle school. He started here in grade 5, he’s now in grade 7, and he never has been to middle school,” which in Cresskill starts in sixth grade. “He’s never had the social and academic and regular life of middle school; they miss the physical activities, the clubs, the after-school stuff. There is so much frustration.”
What about moving? Oh no, Ms. Mashiah said. The first reason not to move is practical. How could she sell her house? “Real estate prices are frozen.” That’s because no one wants to invest in a town without a functioning school system, and no one wants to sell at the fire sale price that would result. “And as an Israeli who moved here 2 1/2 years ago, I don’t want another move for my children. Not next month, or the next month, or the month after that. I don’t want to move again. I don’t want to move them again. I worry that if I move them again, it will hurt them even more.”
And she worries. “This will take forever to fix. It will take months if not years to teach these kids to reconnect, to communicate, to feel confident about themselves, to be comfortable outside the house.”
She doesn’t blame anyone for the situation, Ms. Mashiah said, but it must be fixed. “When we were dealing with covid, there were no other options. We said that at least they could go on Zoom. But that’s not normal anymore.”
Suzanne Joshi, another Cresskill parent, has been very active in advocating for the town’s children. “I believe that if we had more state involvement, there would be faster progress,” she said. “But we are an 8,000-person town. The superintendent and school board are doing the best that they can, but we are not equipped to deal with something of this magnitude without experienced political help.
“We have had no involvement with the state at all. Governor Murphy has not made a statement or visited the school. I call his office every day, and I leave a message. The ladies in the office take the message and pass it on. I know them very well by now. But no one ever calls back.
“The state is failing us. Our children have a constitutional right to a fair and efficient education.”
Although education is a state rather than a federal responsibility, the town has gotten help from its congressional representative, Bill Pascrell, and one of its two senators, Cory Booker. “Pascrell got the Army Corps of Engineers to look at the building,” Ms. Joshi said. But federal officials, even members of Congress and senators, can do only so much.
On January 26, there will be a referendum in the town to authorize funds to order boilers; a rally on January 8 is intended to draw attention and energy to the cause. “If it passes, we can get the money into the bank within maybe 20 days, and then we will get 75 percent of it back from FEMA, but we need everyone to vote for it,” Ms. Joshi said. That includes the people who no longer have children in the school system, or perhaps never did and never will. But there’s more in it for them than just the abstract good of doing the right thing. Ms. Joshi echoed Ms. Mashiah’s point about real estate. “My house isn’t worth the ground it’s build on,” she said. The situation is bad for real estate values.
The referendum comes out to about $70 per family,” Ms. Joshi said. “We will be challenged with inertia at the vote. And although it’s not a significant amount for most people, some will say, ‘I already pay a fortune to live here. Why should I pay any more?’”
There is some hope for a short-term solution, Ms. Joshi continued. The school board and other parents have continued to look for buildings big enough and close enough to house Cresskill’s students.
They looked at Temple Emanu-El in Closter; the large building has classrooms that are used only after regular school hours. Negotiations grew serious, but in the end the arrangements didn’t work out.
Both he and the synagogue’s rabbi, David-Seth Kirshner, were excited about the chance to help the school and its students, the shul’s president, Robert Heidenberg of Demarest, said. Should the town decide to consider Emanu-El again, that consideration would be welcome. “We understand genetically what it is like not to have a home,” Mr. Heidenberg said. “We always want to provide a home if we possibly can.”
So far, the closest to a temporary home that Cresskill students might find for now is a Korean church in Northvale, Ms. Joshi said. It has a building that’s in use only on weekends. There’s a good chance that a deal can be negotiated, and Cresskill’s middle- and upper-school students can go there. “They will be in school every day, and that will be an intense relief,” Ms. Joshi said. But, as always, there’s a hitch. “Some kids will have to be bused. Finding buses will be hard. And even if we can find them, the costs will not be reimbursable. It will be hundreds of thousands of dollars taken out of the budget.”
Paul Tractenberg of West Orange is a professor emeritus at Rutgers’ law school, where he taught, researched, and advocated for 45 years; his passion always has been social justice in general and education in particular. He is not involved with the ongoing problems in Cresskill, but he knows a great deal about the obligations the state has to public-school students.
“There has been an absolutely clear constitutional principle that the state ultimately is responsible for ensuring that every kid gets a so-called thorough and efficient education,” Mr. Tractenberg said. (Here, by “the state” Mr. Tractenberg means New Jersey, not some more nebulous federal entity.) Education is entirely a state function. The federal government’s role in it is limited. And although some school districts have some legal authority, that authority is essentially what the state assigns to them.
“The court has made it crystal clear that ultimate responsibility for the provision of education and its funding rests with the state, although it can assign some of that responsibility to the municipality,” Mr. Tractenberg said. “But if the municipality cannot do it, the state might have to do it themselves.”
New Jersey has a long, odd-to-outsiders tradition of home rule — municipalities are free to make many of their own decisions, and to maintain their own school systems, fire and police departments, planning boards, and other structures, although they might seem unnecessarily redundant, and that efficiency might lie in combining some of those departments with neighboring towns. But that home rule has nothing to do with Cresskill’s situation now, Mr. Tractenberg said. “That tradition is longstanding and deeply felt, but at least in terms of education, it is clear that the state is responsible for education. The state can’t hide behind home rule.”
Still, he added, that is an abstraction. “The problem is what the remedy might be. Even if the state were to say, ‘We are ultimately responsible and can do whatever is possible,’ it is not 100 percent clear what they could do.
“If a student advocate got involved, I think they would say, ‘Look, I don’t care how you adults handle it. But you have got to do it for the kids.’ In my view, the state should be there, doing whatever it takes to ensure that the kids get back to a quality education as soon as possible. And by ‘quality education,’ I don’t mean just the book work. By now, we all should recognize that mental health is vitally important too.”
He has some advice for parents. “If they were willing to take the gloves off, and to say ‘Whatever we need to do to get our kids an education, we’ll do,’ it might make a difference. Politeness and deference are increasingly of less use in my experience. The state has all sorts of ways to delay and obstruct and make you jump through every conceivable hoop.”
He’d suggest considering a lawsuit. That advice comes with caveats, he added. “Someone, maybe Voltaire, once said, ‘I was almost ruined twice in my life; once when I lost a lawsuit and once when I won one.’ Filing a lawsuit is not a sure way to nirvana, but I do think that the gloves have to come off, one way or the other. Being deferential and polite is not likely to accomplish anything.”