The Verona Board of Education voted Tuesday night to move up the re-entry of more students into school buildings from November 9 to as early as October 19 for some grades. The meeting saw sharp criticism of the district from several parents, lengthy arguments over air filtration and the announcement of a vote of no-confidence in the superintendent by Verona’s teachers union that could complicate the new re-entry plan. The plan also, however, comes against a backdrop of rising positive COVID-19 cases in Verona, Essex County and the state of New Jersey at large: Verona’s positive cases are up 22% since the school year began, according to County data.
The advanced re-entry plan will, like the original stage 3 plan, bring students back into school buildings in small groups for half-day sessions. Currently, only pre-school, kindergarten, first grade and special education students are in school buildings. The new phase 3 will begin on October 19 for second and third grades, and on October 26 for fourth grade and H.B. Whitehorne. Verona High School will remain virtual until November 9. When VHS students return, they will also be getting in-person instruction on Wednesdays; all other schools will add Wednesday to the in-person schedule beginning on November 18.
In a meeting that lasted until after midnight, the BOE also got an update on the referendum construction that has been going on in all six schools. COVID outbreaks in construction supply companies have caused numerous delays to the work. The spreadsheet shared with the BOE by the construction manager shows what remains to be done and the new expected completion dates.
Dr. Christopher Tamburro, a VHS teacher who is also the president of the teachers union, the Verona Education Association, called in to the meeting to announce that the VEA had “unanimously” approved a vote of no confidence in the superintendent over his handling of the district during the pandemic. But in a conversation yesterday, Tamburro said that the vote was actually only unanimous among those who had participated in the VEA meeting last week, which was 155 people and not the full membership of 287. The VEA members include teachers, administrative assistants, maintenance and tech personnel and paraprofessionals.
The VEA vote, which was similar to votes by teachers unions elsewhere in the state, does not oblige the BOE to take any action against Dionisio, whose contract was renewed in February. At Tuesday’s meeting, both the BOE and the administrative union offered unanimous support for the superintendent. “We have reviewed these [VEA] demands, and it is safe to say that virtually everything on that list has been discussed in one form or another and addressed over the past months,” the BOE statement reads. “The return to school plan was developed transparently, in full view and with the input of the staff.” VEA members were part of the stakeholder committees that the district formed around the reopening plans, as well as parents.
Pressed yesterday to explain the significance of the no-confidence vote, Tamburro said that it was “not necessarily” a precursor to a strike but he declined to say whether VEA members would be in schools Monday for the start of the stepped up phase 3. Second and third grade teachers have been in their buildings from the beginning of the school year, alongside the younger students and their teachers. There have been no COVID cases reported in the elementary schools, although there was a second reported positive at HBW today. Only administrators, teachers and custodians, along with a small number of special education students are in that school building. VHS teachers have been teaching from home while work was being completed on its heating and ventilation system.
As part of the referendum update, the construction manager also gave an update on the air filtration systems. Verona’s current systems have MERV-7 and -8 filters, as do the schools in many neighboring towns, but the VEA and some parents have been pressing for MERV-13s, which were designed settings like hospitals. Only the high school system can now accommodate MERV-13s and while Verona has ordered them, they are on back-order.
You can watch the full BOE meeting here. The update on referendum construction begins about 1 hour and 22 minutes into that video, with the update on the high school ventilation system at the 1 hour 25 minute mark. The presentation on the advanced reopening plan begins at 2 hours and 28 minutes.