Morris District super urges parents to cooperate with contact tracers; board honors pioneer of historic merger

The late George Kelley (left), a founding member of the Morris School District board, was honored by Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast at virtual board meeting, Jan. 4, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin
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Decisions must be made quickly in a pandemic. Hourly, sometimes.

As of 1 pm on Monday, all systems were go for the Hillcrest Elementary School to reopen Tuesday from the holiday break.

At 4:15 pm, however, Morris School District Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast got word that seven people from Hillcrest had tested positive, for a total of eight known COVID cases there.

Immediately, Hillcrest was switched to all-virtual instruction for the week, joining the Frelinghuysen Middle School (seven positives) and Morristown High School (at least 13).

‘ABSOLUTELY MAGNIFICENT’ TEAM: Morris School District Supt. Mackey Pendergrast, Jan. 4, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

“We understand that puts a strain on our parents,” Pendergrast said at Monday night’s virtual school board meeting. He defended such whack-a-mole scheduling as preferable to the continuity of prolonged shutdowns of all 10 district schools.

To get students back inside classrooms, the superintendent urged parents to cooperate with contact tracers.

“If everybody called back the local health department when they call, and they were able to contact trace thoroughly with every single person that’s positive, then we would know exactly who needs to be quarantined. And who doesn’t have to be quarantined. And we could open up tomorrow,” said Pendergrast.

He fielded sharp critiques from parents unhappy with remote learning for their elementary schoolers, during a 90-minute reorganization session that included the election of new board leaders and tributes to founding member George Kelley, a pioneer of racial equality.

Kelley, who died last month at 87, served a half-century ago when an historic court order merged the Morristown and Morris Township school districts to preserve diversity at Morristown High School and stem white flight.

“We are blessed by his legacy and his life. He lived a life of consequence,” Pendergrast said of the longtime teacher, who held leadership roles in Morris County chapters of the Urban League and NAACP and shared his booming tenor with the Masterwork Chorus.

Board member Nancy Bangiola praised Kelley for his courage.

“I think it’s important to focus on our history, and the people who got us here. They were extraordinarily brave and we tend to forget that. The merger of these districts didn’t come out, you know, without a price, without some serious intention in our communities and some arguments, even.

“And there were very brave people who saw a future, a place we could be in 50 years, if we took this brave step and formed, formally, into the one community, made of many, that we’ve always been,” said Bangiola, ranking Kelley among the courageous.

She expressed thanks for “the gift that he has brought all of our children, and grandchildren, and this community at large for…generations.”

Members unanimously chose Melissa Spiotta as president of the Morris School District board, Jan. 4, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

Melissa Spiotta, unanimously chosen Monday to succeed Bangiola as board president, with Linda Murphy as vice president, said she benefited, as a 1985 Morristown High graduate, from the district Kelley helped forge.

“It’s really amazing, if you think about that 50 years, how much really has been accomplished” by the Morris School District, Spiotta said.

Ann Rhines,  the longest-serving member of the present board, had warm memories of Kelley.

“I had many discussions with George, and he made many great decisions. But the one thing I remember is, he always did it with a smile. So, when you spoke to him you always felt happy, and that made me feel good,” Rhines said.

That uplifting smile was present even when Kelley came home from long meetings in those early days, his daughter, Candace Kelley, told the board.

“It was a contentious time, and I think that it was just a very special time for him to be a part of it all, so thank you once again for just recognizing him, remembering him in the same spirit that we do,” she said. “And the work continues.”

‘PAINFUL TO WATCH’

Pendergrast, named New Jersey’s top superintendent last year, is a firm believer in numbers. He came armed with plenty on Monday, to make a case that it’s borderline miraculous how the district has kept open its doors, even intermittently.

More than 200 coronavirus cases have been confirmed across the regional district since September–more than twice as many cases as any other district in Morris County, he said.

That’s more cases than Chatham Borough has experienced during the entire pandemic, Pendergrast said.

The Morris School District is twice as large as Madison’s school district–but has five times more COVID cases, he said.

“I would just say our team has done an absolutely magnificent job in opening and trying to stay open… Proof of concept: We opened when 40 percent of the state didn’t,” Pendergrast said.

‘JUST AMAZING’ : Supt. Mackey Pendergrast praised 2020 virtual Winter Showcase concert by students from the high school and middle schools, prompting a parent to request similar productions for K-5 kids. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

All K-5 instruction in the Morris district was in-person when the semester started. Only three transmissions of the virus appear to have occurred inside district schools, he added.

With vaccines starting to roll out, and stricter community adherence to health protocols, Pendergrast predicted a “challenging January” could yield to a more normal looking spring.

That cannot come soon enough for some parents of K-5 children, who Zoomed into Monday’s meeting to report their kids are struggling with virtual classes and isolation from friends.

Craig Gilgallon of Morris Township called the district’s aim of keeping everyone safe “an impossible goal.”

Most people survive COVID-19, he said. “But you know, the mental health of these children are really at stake, and I don’t see that being addressed.

“Why are we not advocating to get these teachers, especially the older teachers, vaccinated? I believe most of the decisions being made in this past year are being based out of fear, not science. I’ve been told multiple times that they’re based on science, but I haven’t seen that,” Gilgallon said.

Chastity Milligan of Morris Township has four kids in elementary school, including two kindergarteners.

Seeing them attempt to learn via Google Meet “is painful to watch. It is not realistic,” she said, challenging Pendergrast and board members to log into these virtual classes.

Arts, music, science and foreign languages have fallen by the wayside in K-5, Milligan said. Her concerns were shared by Christine Frost, another Morris Township mother of elementary schoolers.

Morris Plains resident Holly Traetto-mendez, whose daughter attends the high school, urged the administration to provide in-school learning for students whenever possible.

“I just feel their mental health is suffering greatly,” she said.

“I don’t think the kids get (COVID) as bad as the adults. I know it could be deadly and all that. I just think the majority survive,” Traetto-mendez said. “I’m just hoping you try to stay open as much as you can, so they can get some exposure.”

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