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Parents split on children returning to classrooms in the fall

Even if schools reopen to in-person education in September, some parents in South Jersey say they will not be sending their children back out of concern for their safety as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers.

“My daughter is not going back to school until more things open. If the movie theater that seats 100 is still closed for safety, then why should I be OK sending my daughter to a school with over 1,000 kids and staff?” said Melissa Reichman, 37, of Mays Landing.

According to recent national polls, many American parents are split on the subject, finding there is no good answer on how to handle the issue of back-to-school.

The National Parents Union organization, which polled weekly between April and June, found that as of June 15, 54% of respondents believed schools should remain closed until they are certain there are no health risks. An Axios poll from mid-July showed 71% of parents perceived sending their children back to school in the fall was a risk to their health and well-being.

And a poll from EdChoice in June found more than one-third of respondents would choose an online-only option for their children’s education come September, while 25% were either “not that likely” or “not at all likely” to choose online or virtual learning.

Reichman, a mother of a 16-year-old in high school and a 19-year-old in college, said she was glad to hear about Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement Monday that parents can opt out of in-person school in the fall even if their district decides to open, with guidance expected later this week.

Schools, which have been closed since mid-March due to the pandemic, were given the go-ahead to begin making reopening plans late last month after the Department of Education released its “Road Back” guide. The 100-page document included many social distancing and safety requirements as well as optional expanded measures to ensure the safe return to school, but allows each district the flexibility to make its own plan.

But last week, Marie Blistan, president of the New Jersey Education Association union, expressed uncertainty over a return to the classroom as the virus continues to spread rapidly in other parts of the country.

Blistan told on Friday she didn’t think schools would have enough time to plan. In an interview with New Jersey News Network, NJEA Secretary Steve Beatty said that there was also a concern about if enough teachers would return to school.

Parents locally cited varying reasons they do or don’t want to their children back in school buildings, including health and safety concerns, educational outcomes, socialization and an inability to work from home, or to work from home and teach at the same time.

Antonella Marmo, 33, of the Smithville section of Galloway Township, said she is sending her kids back to school “even if they are the only kids in the class.”

COVID impact survey

“This would be their first year for my kindergartner and pre-K. They are so excited to be on the bus, to go to school and make friends,” said Marmo, a mother of three. “Life has to go back to normal. We can’t have children in a bubble forever.”

Stacy Lee Ng, 35, of Egg Harbor Township will also send her two school-aged children to school in the fall. She said she wants to see extra sanitization at the school buildings and more safety precautions.

“If a teacher witnesses a child who looks ill, send them home. Parents, as well, if your child is home and sick you should not send them to school. These are very simple common sense ways to prevent illnesses from spreading,” Ng said.

Kimberly Little, of Egg Harbor Township, said she will send her 10- and 13-year-old children back to school buildings if the option is available but would prefer a hybrid plan with some at-home learning.

“I think remote learning improved as time went on, but as I stated before, there is no replacement for in-person. It was difficult to hold my children to a set schedule when you had to work from home also,” Little said.

Melissa Allen, 32, of Egg Harbor Township, said she is not comfortable sending her 5- and 6-year old children to school in the fall.

“I don’t feel the schools can keep up with the demand of cleanliness with having so many young children in one area,” Allen said.

Distance learning

She said that although remote learning was difficult in the spring, she would rather continue that way, with some tweaks.

Shauna Schneeman, 25, of Folsom, said she never “in a million years” thought she would do homeschooling with her two children, but, because of the pandemic, she has pulled her son from the district and will handle his education in her own way.

Part of that decision was her experience with the virtual learning provided by the district in the spring, which she said left too much uncertainty.

“It basically was parent-taught, however we needed to answer to a teacher, do their activities when they wanted. I didn’t know what the lesson plan was until 9 a.m. every day, which to an early riser feels like the afternoon,” Schneeman said.

For Schneeman, the decision to home-school was made easier because she had already quit two of her jobs due to the pandemic.

Schneeman said she doesn’t plan on making home-schooling a permanent replacement.

“As soon as the school goes back to normal, they will go back,” she said.

GALLERY: Best of the Class of 2020 graduations in South Jersey

GALLERY: Best of the Class of 2020 graduations in South Jersey

Borgata is back, last Atlantic City casino to reopen

ATLANTIC CITY — All nine of the city’s casinos have reopened following a nearly four-month shutdown because of the coronavirus.

Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa began welcoming back invited guests to the property Thursday. The casino hotel will open to the general public at 10 a.m. Sunday.

Even with the restrictions, Borgata guests said they were excited to be back.

“Borgata is my happy place,” said Lucille Haley, of Woodbridge, Middlesex County, who was on a day trip with some friends. Haley said she “absolutely” felt safe while playing slots Thursday afternoon.

“I just think they went above and beyond,” she said.

Like the rest of Atlantic City’s casinos, Borgata is operating with reduced capacity and no indoor dining, smoking or drinking on the gaming floor. Masks must be worn by everyone on the property, guests’ temperatures are taken upon arrival and social distancing guidelines are being adhered to, with polycarbonate dividers at table games and every other slot machine turned off.

Patty Fitzpatrick, of Shrewsbury, Monmouth County, also referred to Borgata as her “happy place,” while playing video poker inside the recently renamed BetMGM Sportsbook & Bar.

Fitzpatrick said she visited another Atlantic City casino this month following the Independence Day weekend reopenings but has been waiting to come back to Borgata.

“Borgata has always been my favorite,” she said. “It’s always so clean ... but now I see more cleaning people, more hand-sanitizing stations. They have masks available (when you walk in). It’s just immaculate. You can tell the people have been working so hard.”

Borgata’s health and safety protocols mirror those in place at other casinos operated by parent-company MGM Resorts International, such as touchless food and beverage menus, no valet service and two handwashing stations on the casino floor.

After consultation with medical professionals, MGM put together a seven-point plan that is used across the company’s portfolio of properties.

“Health and safety comes first,” said Borgata President and Chief Operating Officer Melonie Johnson.

The Atlantic City market leader declined to reopen earlier this month after Gov. Phil Murphy reversed course on allowing indoor dining just days before casinos were set to resume operations. Johnson said it was important for Borgata and MGM to have the reopening resemble an experience guests had come to expect from the property.

“It was never our intent to open first in the Atlantic City market,” Johnson said Thursday. “We wanted to make sure that when we opened, we opened safely, for our employees and our guests.”

Almost all of the available outdoor space at Borgata, and its sister property The Water Club, has been utilized for food and beverage offerings. The Borgata Beer Garden is a full restaurant and bar next to the outdoor pool, and Borgata Street Eats features a taco truck and alcohol, with tent seating for nearly 90 people nearby. The SunBar at The Water Club offers outdoor dining after 3 p.m. for more than 100 people.

For high-rollers, Borgata transformed the indoor pool and adjacent garden into a player’s lounge with covered outdoor seating.

“We took the time to reassess and strategize, and what we’ve come up with — I have to give kudos to the food and beverage department — what we have right now to offer our guests is amazing,” Johnson said.

Back inside the casino, shooting solo at a craps table, Bob Simansky, of Sayreville, Middlesex County, said he felt confident Borgata did everything it could to provide a safe atmosphere. In between throws, Simansky said he waited to come back to a casino until Borgata opened.

“This is where I always go. I like this place the best,” he said. “They treat me well.”

PHOTOS from the first day back at Borgata casino in Atlantic City

Linwood music teacher to lose job over 2017 simple assault charge despite acquittal

A Linwood music teacher who was convicted and later cleared of simple assault charges against a student will lose her job in the district, a state-appointed arbitrator ruled last month.

In a scathing written opinion, arbitrator Earl R. Pfeffer upheld tenure charges filed by the Linwood School District against Kimberley Peschi in 2017 after the incident where she was accused of purposefully knocking a 12-year-old student out of his chair during lunch, causing him to hit his head on the floor.

The student was treated for a closed head injury and a headache.

Pfeffer wrote that Peschi was “culpable for the violations and misconduct alleged in the charges” and “engaged in conduct unbecoming a teaching staff member and committed corporal punishment” in violation of state law. He ordered she be terminated from the district.

Peschi’s attorney, Edward A. Cridge, was unavailable for comment Thursday.

“We were pleased to secure the result for the Linwood Board of Education and community,” said attorney Will Donio, who represented the school district. “At the time of the incident, the board and the administration said very clearly they would not condone this behavior. And though the administration changed and the board membership changed, their resolve never wavered. We’re happy to put this behind us and look forward to the future.”

Linwood Superintendent Brian Pruitt said the board and district were committed to seeing the tenure case come to a resolution supporting their position and are happy with the outcome.

“The district is looking to the future and the opportunity to continue to provide an excellent education for the students of our community,” Pruitt said.

Peschi, 43, of Galloway Township, had been on a partially paid suspension since the tenure charges were filed in April 2017. She was found guilty of simple assault in Northfield Municipal Court in 2018 and ordered to forfeit her teaching license, but last year that ruling was overturned on appeal by Atlantic County Superior Court Judge John Rauh.

Although Northfield Municipal Judge Timothy Maguire said video surveillance of the incident was pivotal to finding Peschi guilty, Rauh said the footage was too grainy, and that Peschi’s testimony that she was trying to right the chair was “plausible.”

In an apparent rebuke of Rauh’s decision, Pfeffer said Peschi acted impulsively and with a lack of professionalism, maturity and good judgment. He further stated that Peschi’s contention “that she inadvertently ‘tapped’ M.M.’s chair and never intended for him to fall to the floor is only plausible if I ignore what is undeniable,” which was her lack of empathy, care or compassion toward the student who fell.

“Indeed, Judge Rauh, in finding insufficient proof that (Peschi) had intention to push (the student) and his chair to the ground without regard for the child’s welfare apparently did not consider these important factors relevant to (Peschi’s) purposefulness or lack thereof,” Pfeffer wrote.

Pfeffer went on to write that even if Peschi never touched the student’s chair but only engaged in the actions after the student fell — “do nothing to assist the child, ignore the possibility of a serious injury, chastise the child for his unsafe conduct and then walk away” — the charges would be serious.

“The actual wrongdoing is far worse,” Pfeffer wrote.

Peschi began working at Belhaven Middle School in 1999.

A civil case filed by the student and his mother against Peschi and the Linwood School District seeking damages is pending in Atlantic County Superior Court.

Peschi arbitrator decision

City Council wants statue of Fannie Lou Hamer in Atlantic City

ATLANTIC CITY — In January, then-congressional candidate Brigid Callahan Harrison published an opinion piece in The Press of Atlantic City calling for a statue of civil rights and women’s rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer to be erected outside Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.

Hamer’s connection to the city and the building — she famously proclaimed, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” there during the 1964 Democratic Convention — is recognized within Stockton University’s city campus, where the school’s signature meeting room is named in her honor.

In light of nationwide social and political unrest amid renewed calls for justice and reform, City Council took an additional step Wednesday night toward memorializing Hamer. Council voted unanimously to submit a grant application to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority for a statue of Hamer to be erected outside Boardwalk Hall.

“I think it’s a fitting tribute to a person who committed her life for the struggle for justice and humanity,” said 3rd Ward Councilman Kaleem Shabazz, who sponsored the council resolution.

He said there have been preliminary discussion about the Hamer statue with officials at the CRDA. Shabazz, who is also president of the NAACP’s Atlantic City chapter, said he believes there is support for the proposal.

The push for the statue of Hamer came on the same night council paid $19,000 for the removal and transport of the Christopher Columbus statue that stood at the base of the Atlantic City Expressway. The statue was removed earlier this month.

Council voted to rename Christopher Columbus Boulevard as Italian Heritage Boulevard, while also electing to celebrate Italian Heritage Day on the second Monday in October.

A resolution on council’s agenda to recognize Aug. 9 as Indigenous People’s Day was pulled without explanation.

GALLERY: Christopher Columbus statue in Atlantic City taken down